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Unless Hardcover – Import, 2002
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"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 the Audible Audiobook edition.
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 the Audible Audiobook edition.
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Written in the first person narrative, Reta escorts the reader through a mother's daily routines under the dark cloud of a disconnected daughter. Each of her women friends and acquaintances express support and their unique insight for hopeful resolution. There is little Reta can do though. Once a week she drives to Toronto with food and clothes for a daughter that refuses to acknowledge her presence, so Reta spies on her from nearby stores. At home, she carefully sweeps the cellar stairs, as if getting the dirt out of the corners will somehow enlighten the shadow that has befallen her offspring. The timeless anguish of motherhood is palpable.
Shortly before Norah disappears, she laments to her mother over the immensity of the world, about her struggle to get past the little things. She says "I'm trying to find where I fit in."
Given Reta's feminist perception of the world, she believes that her daughter's malignancy is founded in the exclusion and powerlessness of women, that despite "having come so far," they've been snookered into the side pocket. Through Reta and her mentor Danielle Westerman, an aged literary feminist, Shield splatters her story with the female grievance, about the male power play and the non-recognition of women etc. It's not a hard sell though. Reta drafts letters criticizing male writers for excluding females from their lists of achievers, yet she never mails them. And in her ending, Shield wags her finger at the shrillness of Reta's complaint.
If you are a reader accustomed to being hooked in the first paragraph and reeled in by the end of chapter one, a reader who believes that a novel is first and foremost story and that style is irrelevant, you might be disappointed with Unless. Only Shield's strong prose and your faith that she'll get to some point will carry you to chapter two. This novel was not written to entertain. Indeed, Danielle Westerman chides Reta "for the unworthiness of novel writing." Reta is inclined to agree: "...what really is the point of novel writing when the unjust world howls and writhes...UNLESS they can provide an alternative, hopeful course, they're just so much narrative crumble" (emphasis is mine).
Unless is not narrative crumble. It is the last word of an accomplished author with five children and terminal cancer. Unless did more than take me inside the mind of a mother in grief. It made me wonder whether we are so trapped by our history that, in the end, we are uncertain who we are and what we have done.
The story relates how the rest of the family survives and continues to make sure she is O.K. Never giving up.
Written like a mystery with the family's.persistence and love and patience - yet respecting and non-invasion of their
Daughter and sister. Carole Shields writes with warmth and understanding. She won the Pulitzer Prize for THE
STONE DIARIES and the United Kingdom voted UNLESS as one of the fifty best-loved novels ever written by a
Woman. I think it is something every family will be moved and touched by. Very relatable and teachable.
Carol Shields follows the arc of Reta's despair, sometimes with great wit and irony. Reta carries on with ordinary life even in the face of loss. A wonderful chapter begins, "Tom and I still have sex--have I mentioned this?--even though our oldest daughter is living on the street." She starts another chapter with having manure delivered for the garden--even though her daughter is on the street. Reta finds respite in the fictional world she creates in her new novel and the characters' lives begin to parallel Reta' life which begin to parallel Carol Shield's life--all tied up in losses and ultimately healing. It's easy to forgive Shields if the ending is a little too neatly tied up. She is struggling with breast cancer and probably knows more about loss and redemption than she would like to.