Mari HowardJanuary 2, 2020

Where are the Grown ups? and Unsettled

by Ruth Badley, and by Barbara Kingsolver

This review tries to cover the latest two books I've read recently: Where are the Grown-ups and Unsettled. They're very much not a pair, so don't expect one to cover both memoir and the challenges of change...

Interestingly, I love both these books – which are very different– but disagreed with a great deal of what others have said about them. Admittedly, these others were the people who had put reviews on Amazon and, often, possibly usually, very personal opinions.

As are mine of course, but here is how I saw the books. Where are the Grown-ups? is a memoir, the author’s first full-length work. Ruth Badley, from an East End Jewish background, tracks back through her own childhood, then investigate her mother’s upbringing as she seeks to understand her relationship with, and experience of, her mum.

Kingsolver, an experienced novelist (The Poisonwood Bible is possibly her most widely known book), has largely created her characters, though Mary Treat, a woman naturalist and scientist, is a real historical figure. She both conducted experiments and corresponded with the most influential scientist and original thinker of the day, Charles Darwin and others in the field.

Commendations for Badley’s book were totally five-star, emphasising poignancy and evocations of the East End in the early 20th century. Kingsolver's book had every kind of review from "boring" (too much science and too little plot ), to mentioning the authors “skill in creating plausible worlds… and making us interested in the minutiae of their lives".

So, to my reactions. I enjoyed Badley’s book, partly I suspect because it resonated with my own childhood. Both she and I grew up in London suburbia around the same time, and had grandparents and great aunts who’d spent their growing years far further into London. Her mother, I soon discovered, had quite something in common with my mother-in-law so, before we reached descriptions of the circumstances which forced that personality and the mother/daughter conflict, I had anticipated what proved to be a good part of the root cause. The book, though a memoir, is quite a sociological journey of family history. Its poignancy is repeated in many different families where present-day health care and changes in public attitudes might have alleviated the problems. The most telling quotation is probably this: “(My mum) was the needy one in our family, the one who's mood could suddenly change, the one that must be considered, deferred to, and placated or else Dad would get a tongue lashing." The consequences of how her mother’s childhood emotional neglect impacted on the young Ruth are clearly here. Despite meticulous physical care from a foster mother (her great aunt), whose ambition was that the child lacked for nothing and learned to behave right, her Mum grew up damaged by her lack of warmth. More emerges as we learn about her mother's paternal backstory, and put all this together with Badley's own demons as a young adult. 

Character drawing and development was less necessary in a memoir than a novel, but skill has been used to make family stories and further research come alive in lively scenes which evoke the era of a late 20th century childhood and earlier times in the bustling East End of London.

Kingsolver's satisfyingly fat paperback is very different, although we  do meet some of the same problems. People who have become used to material goods but overlook the value of relationship, both to others and to the wider natural world, ignore nature to their cost. Her intention here, revealed in the title " Unsheltered" is to draw parallels between the Darwinian crisis of the 1870s and the climate crisis of today. Drawing parallels of deliberate ignoring or disputing of any proof in new scientific revelations, she also uses a degree of "magic realism" in the ruinous state of the houses which her characters inhabit. These houses are on the same plot of ground, a speculative development in southern New Jersey. Neither house offers shelter from the elements, and they spend the entire book falling into complete disrepair. As does the marriage of Thatcher Greenwood and his wife Rose in the 1870s, under threat from his determination to teach Darwin's theory of evolution in a town which prefers to firmly stick to a creationist theology. In the 21st-century Vineland, the Tavoularis family, headed by Iano, a college lecturer, whose parents emigrated from Greece, Millennial daughter Tig represents support for a more gentle, earth-acknowledging lifestyle, while her brother Zeke is taken up with his financial dealings and ignoring his infant son. Bringing these two narratives together, Kingsolver uses history, the person of Mary Treat, abandoned wife and forward-looking amateur scientist, extremely effectively I feel, while incidentally swiping at the American "healthcare" system. Government attitudes from the Victorians to the present day are shown not to have changed,as Mary observes (page 231) “When men feel the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order"

Debate and discussion there certainly is, and the characters could possibly be further developed but the study of human character is less important here that the overall message of the interwoven stories, and characters are sufficiently drawn to be thoroughly credible. Kingsolver concentrates on demonstrating the consistency of people who prefer clinging to the past to interacting with what is becoming the future and adapting accordingly. Indeed the reaction of the 21st century to climate change ironically denies that they ever accepted Darwin’s theory of adaptation and evolution and demonstrates the reluctance of Western civilisation to make changes which will become necessary to ensure survival.

Both books are also available as e-books

You may've read my novels - but have you tried my poetry? Live, Lose, Learn by Mari Howard, available direct from Hodge (see website 'Books')