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Unless by Carol Shields

Unless (2002)

by Carol Shields

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,646773,243 (3.61)303
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» See also 303 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
This was Shields' last novel, a wonderfully clever, witty, complicated book about what it's like when one absolutely major thing in your life has gone seriously and inexplicably wrong, but everything else seems to be just fine. And about belonging to a gender that's continually overlooked by people of the other gender, and about being a writer trying to write about writing, and about how it's OK for women to interrupt each other but not for men to interrupt women, and about imaginary letters of complaint, and about what happens if you're afraid to ask the obvious question and try to explain things out of your own imagination, and about many other things.

Such a shame that Shields' career as a novelist was cut short so early. ( )
  thorold | Sep 20, 2018 |
A book about listening to the silence. Reta is a writer, a mother, a friend, and a partner to Tom. The story of Reta revolves around her oldest daughter, Norah, disappearance and migration to a street corner in Toronto as a homeless, mute person. Why is Norah silent? Why is Lois silent? Why is Danielle silent?
The book is set in the 2000 but covers a wide time range for woman and feminism. The sixties, seventies are the time periods when Reta was young and growing up. She is translating for an author who is a feminist prior to the sixties. The daughters are of next generation of females. The plot is perhaps a bit choppy but it is reveal by and through Reta’s thoughts, her writings and conversations that Reta has with others. This would be choppy and not linear. The reader knows right away that there is tragedy, that one daughter is missing. Then the reader finds out that after twenty some years, Reta and Tom are not married but Reta changed her name to Winter and she used to be a Summer. I think the book is purposely choppy as it is reflecting the anguish of Reta over her daughter Norah. Her inner life is revolving around the duaghter’s disappearance and ending up on a street corner with a sign that says GOODNESS. I think when life hands a person something like this, the thought life takes over. I think Reta is at first blaming self and probably always will blames self because early on she said she wished she would have “listened” when Norah came home and was trying to talk with her mother. A lot of this book is about “listening”. The epilogue by Eliot talks about hearing grass grow, squirrel hearts beat and the roar on the other side of silence. Reta silent when Gwen takes the scarf that she bought for Norah (do we let others steal from us what we need to give to our children), the silence of Danielle about her early childhood (Reta never asks), the fact that the new editor never listens to Reta and is always cutting her off. So I think the book is about writing, relationships, feminism’s but it is most about silence. The silence of writing (that quiet activity filled with so much noise), the silence of relationships (holding hands walking, sitting beside), the silence of unsent letters, the silence of women being constantly omitted or talked over. Love Shield’s writing.

The characters were interesting, some are fleshed out well, others are slowly fleshed out and in Shields’ writing about Reta writing about Alicia and Roman we gain insight into how a author goes about developing their characters and how Shields herself develops her characters. I attended a meet the author event at my local library and the author talked about character development, and it fit so well with what was written here.

Achievement; while this book was good. It was nominated and made finalists but did not win any significant awards. The author is the winner of the Pulitzer. The style of this book was stream of conscious, epistolary, conversations with others but mostly through Reta’s inner thoughts and her point of view. I enjoyed the style. I found the book to be readable. It wasn’t slow and it wasn’t agony to pick it up yet it was like listening to grass grow. Wonderful if you stop to enjoy the process. ( )
  Kristelh | Jul 30, 2018 |
In this novel, 44-year-old Reta is trying to finished the sequel to a surprisingly successful light comic novel, working on translating another volume of her elderly mentor's memoirs, and trying NOT to worry about her oldest daughter. Her oldest, Norah, has dropped out of college, left her boyfriend, moved into a hostel, and spends her days panhandling on a Toronto street corner. She won't talk to her parents, she won't even talk to her sisters.

It took me a long time to get into this book. It's choppy and vague, stilted and disjointed. But that is also Reta's life--worried about too many things, trying to hold it all together and support her other two teen daughters. Wondering where she and Tom went wrong, or if there is mental illness involved, or if the problems of being a woman in the world (ignored, talked over, seen as and valued as less) are just too much for Norah. Or is Reta projecting her own frustrations? ( )
  Dreesie | Jul 27, 2018 |
Digital audiobook narrated by Joan Allen

Reta Williams is a successful author and translator, a wife, and a mother to three teenage daughters. Her oldest daughter, Norah, is a 19-year-old freshman at university, when Reta and her doctor husband, Tom, discover that Norah has apparently dropped out, and spends her days sitting on a Toronto street corner, with a signed around her neck that reads simply “Goodness.” The mystery of how and why her daughter has come to panhandling in this way is the major plot point of the novel.

However, this really isn’t a plot-driven story. It’s a character study: of what it means to be a woman, a mother, a writer, a feminist. Reta is worried sick about Norah, but she is still a wife, still meets friends for lunch, does laundry, buys gifts, works on her latest book, and she writes letters (which she doesn’t send) in response to articles she reads. Yet, while Reta continues to lead her life, she cannot stop thinking and worrying about Norah.

I finished this book nearly two weeks ago, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I simply didn’t have the words to describe how I felt about it. The best way is to quote from the novel itself:
“A life is full of isolated events, but these events, if they are to form a coherent narrative, require odd pieces of language to cement them together, little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define, since they are abstractions of location or relative position, works like therefore, else, other, also, thereof, theretofore, instead, otherwise, despite, already, and not yet.
....Unless, with its elegiac undertones, is a term used in logic, a word breathed by the hopeful or by writers of fiction wanting to prise open the crusted world and reveal another plane of being, which is similar in its geographical particulars and peopled by those who resemble ourselves.”

This is the last book that Shields wrote, though it is the first by her that I’ve read. I cannot help but wonder how much of Reta’s internal dialogue was really Shields’. (The author died of breast cancer within a year after the novel was published.)

Joan Allen performs the audiobook. She is a gifted actress, and is perfect for this work. She made Shields’ prose virtually sing. ( )
1 vote BookConcierge | Sep 6, 2017 |
I tend to keep my hands off books with any version of the following back cover sales text: [main character] has all reasons to be happy, but.../then one day... Why do they keep doing this? Anyway, that is a different story, and - luckily, this one I did not keep my hands off.

At first sight very simple, but at the same time a complex book of an immensely skillful author who managed to put some very important, very large topics in the least suspected places.
The humor, the wisdom and the depth of the understanding for certain human treats is felt throughout the book, and I feel somehow honored to have read it, and that it has given me as much: I am happy to be a person who is able to hear what Carol Shields had to say. I only found out about this being her last work from one of the reviews here, and, knowing this, makes me look at the book slightly differently now. Still, I am glad I read it in a "neutral" state, without that information on the author (who was writing about the author who was writing about an author... ). One passage in the book spoke to me with the loudest voice, on pgs. 148/99 of my copy, where she is writing about the child going through the world unknowingly, confused and hesitantly looking for answers from adults who react as if they have always known everything, and who have apparently forgotten or have never known the unbelievable wonder of the world around them, so this adds to confusion. Their reactions to the child's comments vary from mildly amused to overhearing or ignoring. Their behavior implies to the child that it should know the answers already and makes the child feel ashamed and left out. This is an insight which is terribly important, and I have never read about it before in a book, or anywhere, not like this. I have certainly felt it, like all of us did, if we can or care to remember.
Here are a few more quotes:
Pg. 106: I'm not interested, the way some people are, in being sad. I've had a look and there's nothing down that road.
Pg. 115 (invented quote): Goodness but not greatness. (what women are reduced to)
Pg. 158 (of children): Three quarters of their weight is memory at this point. I have no idea what they'll discard or what they'll decide to retain and embellish, and I have no certainty, either, of their ability to make sustaining choices.
Pg. 184 (of husband): We live in each other's shelter: we fit.
Pg. 188 (of characters in the book): They yearn - and this is what I can't get my word processor to accept - to be fond of each other, to be charitable, to be mild and merciful. To be barefootedly beautiful in each other's eyes.
Pg. 218 (of daughter/all women, invented quote): Subversion of society is possible for a mere few; inversion is more commonly the tactic for the powerless, a retreat from society that borders on the catatonic.
Pg. 220 (of daughter/all women): What she sees is an endless series of obstacles, an alignment of locked doors. ( )
  flydodofly | Jul 5, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
You hear Iris Murdoch at the back of this book somewhere, or at least Shields has ingrained Murdoch's faith in love, and pursues her stringent inquisition into hope. The result is as poised and wise a novel as any you will read this year.
added by lkernagh | editThe Observer, Tim Adams (May 12, 2002)
There is a sense of wintry urgency about Unless - of any pretence of charm being dropped in order to get things said. But the charm is still there, and it shouldn't be belittled.
added by lkernagh | editThe Guardian, Blake Morrison (Apr 27, 2002)
But Unless is her angriest book to date - a study in awakening and the belated loss of innocence...Unless could be classified as a novel about a woman writing a novel about a woman who writes. But this would suggest something claustrophobic, which it isn't. Though only 200 pages long, it finds room to digress on friendship, shopping, marital sex, relativity theory, hair ("I consider coiffure one of my major life accomplishments. I really mean this"), graffiti and much besides....There is a sense of wintry urgency about Unless - of any pretence of charm being dropped in order to get things said. But the charm is still there, and it shouldn't be belittled. Bard of the banal? No, elegist of the everyday. We should celebrate her achievement while we can.


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Carol Shieldsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dijk, Edith vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

George Eliot
For Ezra and Jay
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It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now.
"The examined life has had altogether too much good publicity. Introversion is piercingly dull in its circularity and lack of air."
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Book description
Reta Winters, 44 year-old successful author of lisght summertime fiction, has always considered herself happy, even blessed. That is, until her oldest daughter Norah mysteriously drops out of college to become a panhandler on a Toronto street corner - silent, with a sign around her neck bearing the word "Goodness."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0007154615, Paperback)

"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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:33 -0400)

(see all 9 descriptions)

Forty-four-year-old Reta Winters, wife, mother, writer, and translator, is living a happy life until one of her three daughters drops out of university to sit on a downtown street corner silent and cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap and a placard round her neck that says "Goodness." The final book from Pulitzer Prize-winner Carol Shields, Unless is a candid and deeply moving novel from one of the twentieth century's most accomplished and beloved authors. --Publisher.… (more)

» see all 9 descriptions

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