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Unless: A Novel Paperback – April 29, 2003

3.6 out of 5 stars 146 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"A life is full of isolated events," writes Carol Shields near the end of Unless, "but these events, if they are to form a coherent narrative, require odd pieces of language to link them together, little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define... words like therefore, else, other, also, thereof, therefore, instead, otherwise, despite, already, and not yet." Shield's explanation for her novel's title lends meaning to this multilayered narrative in which a mother's grief over a daughter's break with the family revises her feminist outlook and pushes her craft as a writer in a new direction.

The oldest daughter of 44-year-old Reta Winters suddenly, inexplicably, drops out of college and ends up on a Toronto street corner panhandling, with a cardboard sign around her neck that reads "goodness." The quiet comforts of Reta's small-town life and the constancy of her feminist perspective sustain her hope that her daughter will snap out of this, whatever "this" is. Threaded into her family's crisis is her ongoing internal elegy on the exclusion of women from the literary canon, which she transposes to mean her daughter's exclusion from humanity. Reta wonders if her daughter has discovered, as she herself did years before, that the world is "an endless series of obstacles, an alignment of locked doors," and has chosen to pursue the one thing that doesn't require power or a voice: goodness.

In her own writing, Reta reaffirms her own sense of self, as well as her sense of humor. As her theoretical reflections on modern womanhood play counterpoint to her unwavering sense of creating a home and keeping her family together, Reta's smarts and fears form a wonderfully coherent narrative--a life worth reading about. With Unless, the inaugural title in HarperCollins's Fourth Estate imprint, Shields (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Stone Diaries) once again asserts her place in the canon. --Emily Russin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

If I have any reputation at all it is for being an editor and scholar, and not for producing, to everyone's amazement, a fresh, bright, springtime piece of fiction,' or so it was described in Publishers Weekly. That cheeky self-description sums up the protagonist of Shields's latest, the precocious, compassionate and feisty Reta Winters, an accomplished author who suddenly finds her literary success meaningless when the oldest of her three daughters, Norah, drops out of college to live on the streets of Toronto with a placard labeled Goodness hung around her neck. Shields takes an elliptical approach to Winters's dilemma, slowly exploring the possible reasons why a bright, attractive young woman would simply give up and drop out. As Shields makes her way through Winters's literary career, her marriage and the difficulties she and her daughter face in being taken seriously as women in the modern era, she employs an ingenious conceit by tracking Winters's emotions as she tries to write a sequel to her light romantic novel while helping a fellow writer, a Holocaust survivor, work on her memoirs. As Norah's plight deepens and the nature of her decision begins to surface, the romantic novel turns dark and serious, and Winters faces a rewrite when her long-time editor dies and his pedantic successor tries to introduce a sexist plot twist. Reta Winters is a marvelously inventive character whose thought-provoking commentary on the ties between writing, love, art and family are constantly compelling in this unabashedly feminist novel. The icing on the cake is the ending, which introduces a startling but believable twist to the plight of a young woman who, in doing nothing... has claimed everything. The result is a landmark book that constitutes yet another noteworthy addition to Shields's impressive body of work.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; X edition (May 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007154615
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007154616
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (146 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,525,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
If I was lazy I'd tell you that this is the book that Nick Hornby's How to be Good could have been (if Nick Hornby was even a fifth of the writer that Carol Shields is). Or I could say that this is a twenty-first century reinterpretation of When She Was Good, one of Philip Roth's earlier masterpieces.
Unfortunately, such laziness would do this rather wonderful and thought-provoking book a grave disservice - in that, although goodness - the idea of goodness, what it means to be good - is at the centre of this book, it shares that space with ruminations on the art of writing, and what it is to be a woman (and a woman writer, and a wife, and a mother, and a friend, and a person in the world) at the beginning of what we like to regard as a more enlightened time to be alive.
Reta Winters took her husband Tom's surname when they first got together (part of the reason being that she was originally Reta Summers and they both agreed that one of the seasons had to change). In lots of ways, this information (which is almost the opposite of a revelation, whatever the word for that is) contains the genesis of this novel writ small. They have three daughters together, Reta and Tom, the oldest of whom decides on the cusp of her nineteenth birthday to throw up her studies and live on the street with a simple cardboard sign - on which the word GOODNESS is written - on a string around her neck. Reta has no idea why her daughter has chosen this path and that - the abstract decision to withdraw from the life you are expected to live - throws the world out of kilter. To all intents and purposes life continues on as it did before (Reta and Tom still sleep together, Reta continues to write the sequel to her comic novel, the family entertain at Christmas).
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By CT on February 1, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I've read some of the other reviews about this book, and found some of them a little bit intriguing. One reader mentionned expecting a fast paced story, as you would find in a mystery or detective novel. This has never been what Carol Shields has been about. She writes in this case about a 44-year-old mother of three/author/translator who tries to cope with her oldest daughter seemingly turning away from life, choosing instead to beg at a Toronto street corner every day with a sign around her neck saying "GOODNESS".
Other readers felt it had no plot. Again, Shields develops characters and not intrigues. She tells the story from Reta's point of view. The "plot" is in trying to comprehend the circumstances leading to her daughter's behavior, in figuring out if she, as a mother, has done something wrong, if the same thing will happen to her other children. Also, in figuring out what is goodness. Throughout the narrative, Shields exposes various forms of goodness.
This book is filled with interesting, down-to-earth characters, expertly developped by the author. The story contains many humorous touches, not the least of which are Reta's letters to various authors, as she complains about the non-representation of female writers in male writers' essays.
I hope you will enjoy this book as much as I did.
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Format: Paperback
Carol Shields' last novel, "Unless," is a refreshing intellectual and literary treat. I enjoyed this novel so much I read it twice in quick succession. The novel is a fitting capstone to an illustrious literary career.

There are three stories intertwined in this short novel. First, there is the story of Reta Winters, the mother, a woman whose 18-year-old daughter has inexplicably and suddenly dropped out of life to sit mute on a Toronto street corner panhandling with a sign around her neck reading, "GOODNESS." Second, it is the story of Reta Winters, the author, a woman in the process of writing a comic novel called "My Thyme is Up" and also assisting her feminist mentor, Danielle Westerman, translate her childhood memoirs. Finally, it is the story of Reta Winters, the feminist, a woman quietly raging against the marginalization of women in all walks of life, but especially in the world of literary publishing.

Much of the novel focuses on the nature of goodness. Reta wonders if her daughter's homelessness is some kind of protest against female powerlessness. Perhaps her daughter has suddenly become aware that she must settle for goodness, since greatness still appears to be a realm reserved for men only.

Reta is a 44-year old Canadian writer and translator living in rural Orangetown, Ontario. Reta is a writer in the process of creating a novel...so there is this fascinating infinite digression about a woman writer writing a novel about another woman writer writing a novel. Winters has much to say about the process of writing that is both humorous and insightful, but mostly she rants brilliantly about the marginalization of woman authors.

Reta is a charming, social, busy woman with many friends and responsibilities.
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1 Comment 23 of 23 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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By A Customer on May 24, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I just finished this book and was completely inspired and moved by it. I logged on to see what other readers were saying and I have to say that I think they missed the point. Although this novel moves and is described as a narrative story (with a plot: beginning, middle and end) the more important thing I think is that Carol Shields uses this story to move forward a concept. That being that the female perspective, our narrative, our life story as a whole is not considered as important as the male story. (This idea was recently discussed when literary minds chose the TOP 100 books all time and they found very few female stories or writers on that list.) The character struggle the reader needs to focus on is not the daughter's story (although that would have made a fabulous book too) but the mother's struggle to try to understand how she and society had contributed to an otherwise healthy, intelligent, young woman's "dropping out" or "giving up". What's important here is not whether she as a character is correct in her assumptions of the "why" but the focus of her struggle through the event and what that shows about both her and our culture as a whole. I believe "goodness" is used specifically because it is considered a female trait. That said it's a good novel if you don't get that from it, but it's a GREAT novel if you do.
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