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Unless: A Novel (P.S.) Paperback – January 3, 2006
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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 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.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Reta Winters, mid-forties, living some miles from Toronto, mother of three teenage daughters, and blessed with a loving partner, has achieved some renown as the translator of the French poet and Holocaust survivor Danielle Westerman. Striking out on her own, she has published a light romance entitled "My Thyme is Up," and her publishers have contracted a sequel, "Thyme in Bloom." But she is mired in bewilderment and grief. Her eldest daughter, Norah, has dropped out of college, left her boyfriend, and spends her days on a street corner in Toronto with a begging bowl and a hand-lettered sign saying GOODNESS. She will not respond to her siblings or parents, who are at a loss to understand the cause of her virtual self-immolation. Reta, a quiet but determined feminist, believes it is a reaction to the condition of being deprived of her voice as a woman, hence those unsent letters. But she does not know, and neither her attempts to analyze the problem, or to channel it into her fiction, or to carry on as normally as possible seem to bring any clarity. The ending, when it comes, seems almost simplistic by comparison with the bafflement that had reigned heretofore.
I have discovered that it makes a difference when one reads a particular book and what one has read before it. For example, I have just read THE NOBODIES ALBUM by Carolyn Parkhurst, another book in which a professional writer uses her fiction to help her come to grips with problems in her own family. Carol Shields is by far the better writer (I loved THE STONE DIARIES), and she recognizes the dangers of this approach. As Reta says, "I too am aware of being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing." But to state the dangers is not necessarily to avoid them, especially since "Thyme in Bloom" seems altogether too slight an undertaking to reflect either Reta's intelligence or her emotional needs. Between the two books, I also read TINKERS by Paul Harding, another superb writer who strings together brilliant observations on the most slender connecting story. Two books of this kind in a row are one too many. The memoirs of a fictional character do not automatically become a novel just because the writer is not the author. A collection of essays, plot-ideas, and letters do not coalesce into novel form just because a fictional event has caused their fragmentation in the first place. Individual sections of this book are magnificent, but they need more than prepositions to hold them together; they demand conjunctions.
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.