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Unless by Carol Shields

Unless (2002)

by Carol Shields

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,553742,362 (3.61)273
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» See also 273 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 74 (next | show all)
I hated to rate this book so low because Carol Shields writes exquisitely, and she writes about such important issues. But the book just dragged for me. I wanted to see it through to its end so I sped read most of it, slowing for portions that were just too good to rush. Her story was poignant, important and thought provoking, it just couldn't hold my attention in such long stretches of musing. I'm sure it's more of a reflection on my short attention span than it is on her book, but nonetheless I couldn't rate it the same as I would a book that I love dearly, even if her work deserves it, if that makes sense. ( )
  dldbizacct | May 9, 2017 |
this is a re-read for me. previously, i loved the story. this time, i LOVED it. i'm going to make a mash about trying to review this novel... so apologies upfront for the hot mess that likely follows. :/

to me, this is a perfect novel. carol shields was a literary force and i miss her all the time. unless was her last novel - published in 2002. shields was receiving treatment for breast cancer while she was writing unless. sadly, she passed away from the disease in 2003. i include this information because this novel takes a sharper tone and expresses anger in a way that isn't quite as pronounced in some of the other works i have read from her. unless is also a bit of a 'big life questions' story. i have no way of knowing whether shields's illness and the emotions navigated during that time found their way into her book. as i was reading, i did think on this question quite a bit. illness is a brutal part of life. dealing with chronic or terminal disease always affects the person living with one. and how any individual chooses to handle their illness is, apart from a learning opportunity for others, a time for our respect, our empathy, and our understanding. this is a long ramble of an opening paragraph and a bit of a tangent, but it's tied in to my feeling that shields, with unless, has given a master class in so many different things.

but... back to the book. :) shields gives us so much with this story, and so many ideas and layers to unpack. and she does it so cleverly. perhaps too cleverly -- i think it would be easy for some readers to dismiss this novel based on its surface. i hope you won't do that if you decide to read it.
"I like to think of this book on these four little legs: this idea of mothers and children; the idea of writers and readers – I wanted to talk about the writing process; I wanted to talk about goodness; and then I wanted to talk about men and women – this gender issue, which interests me so much and has actually been a part of every book I've written. I think I am always writing about this.
--Carol Shields from the interview “Ideas of Goodness” with Eleanor Wachtel, published in [book:Random Illuminations: Conversations with Carol Shields|12107101]

the story begins when we learn that reta winters's 19yo daughter, norah, has dropped out of university and sits, silently, on a busy city street corner with a sign that reads 'goodness'. reta, her husband tom, and their 2 other teenaged daughters do what they can to support norah, to help her, respect her, and get her back home. there is a mystery as to why norah has made these choices, and we will get the answer, slowly. the chapter headings are all prepositions or conjunctions. small, simple words which carry a lot of weight when considered more deeply. i truly found this novel to be a profound meditation on life and reality.
"Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. ... Unless you're lucky, unless you're healthy, fertile, unless you're loved and fed, unless you're clear about your sexual direction, unless you're offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair." this may sound very dark and heavy... and certainly there are these moments in the story. life, human beings, are not a tidy, happy species all the time. yet there is also a quietness as reta excavates her life, trying to figure out why norah is on the street. it's an incredible balance achieved.

alright... i guess i'll stop here for now. i know this 'review' hasn't done much justice... but i hope it, at least, makes you curious to check out carol shields's work, if you are not already familiar with her. ( )
  Booktrovert | Apr 30, 2017 |
I came to know Shields’s writing very late, but I am a fan now and very sad she died at a relatively young age. This book reminded me a bit of Roth’s American Pastoral, but without the whining and self-aggrandizement. The narrative is about a parent looking for answers as to why her child has gone off the rails. Reta, our narrator, doesn’t wear the blame hairshirt like Roth’s parent does.

The crux of the story is Norah’s behavior - is she crazy or just happy and why is it that people’s happiness has to take a form that’s acceptable to the rest of us, even if it does no harm? We see this sort of thing a lot in the severe judgement of people who live a freer life, away from the restraints of dutiful society. If we don’t envy or aspire to it, they must be nuts or shirking some kind of responsibility. The way it wrapped was very neat and I didn’t catch the hint of it even though I recognized it when it was revealed.

In between internal wrangling with how to live life and accept Norah’s self-inflicted homelessness, Reta writes letters to people who have done something publicly to denigrate women or a single woman. The thing that was interesting about the device was that after the 2nd or 3rd one, I began to be a little exasperated by them; knowing that each letter was going to bring a complaint about sexism. I want to believe this was deliberate. Did Shields feel the same way over her own exclusion as a writer? Do we tire of always having to point out the fact that women are ignored, short-changed or worse? Who tires of it more, the men who are the bad guys in most scenarios, or the women who constantly have to face down this behavior? It’s an interesting point.

There’s also a thread of commentary about Reta’s output as a writer and translator. Her Thyme novels sound pretty horrible though, nothing like what Shields wrote herself and I’m not sure what to make of that? Did she feel railroaded at some point? Expected to write certain books? Edited into some more acceptable form of “women’s writing?”. Here’s a great paragraph that feels almost too personal for a novel -

“I too am aware of being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing. I know perfectly well that I ought to be writing about dentists and bus drivers and manicurists and those folks who design the drainage beds for eight-lane highways. But no, I am focusing on the stirrings of the writerly impulse, or the “long littleness,” to use Frances Cornford’s phrase, of a life spent affixing small words to large, empty pages. We may pretend otherwise, but to many novelists who go to the trouble of cloaking their heroes in loose crossover garments, turning them into painters or architects, but no one’s fooled. This matters, the remaking of an untenable world through the nib of a pen; it matters so much I can’t stop doing it.”

There’s more where that came from, too -

“...a lash of sentimental static that was not quite elaborated into a thought.” p 34

“I won’t - not now - tuck the ends of my sentences into little licks of favour…” p 20

“...my two lost children, and their separate branches of selfishness.” p 76

I have a feeling this book will end up on my best of 2017 list. Bold statement given it’s only February as of this writing, but when I make statements like that I’m usually right. Get thee to a Carol Shields novel, stat! ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | Feb 3, 2017 |
Fascinating book, focusing on a writer who is undergoing a very difficult family situation. Musings, thoughts about the past, and a gradual unfolding of the plot. Surprisingly enjoyable. ( )
  SueinCyprus | Jan 26, 2016 |
I liked the story premise about a woman writer's 19 year-old daughter, who became a street beggar with a sign reading "goodness" around her neck -- plus actresses Joan Allen's excellent narration/read/acting abilities -- is the hook that kept me interested. I wanted to know, why? What would make someone suddenly take such measures? Also, at the end of the audio there was an interview with author, Carol Shields, that was insightful about her aim in writing this book. ( )
  PaperDollLady | Jan 21, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 74 (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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English title: Unless
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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)

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