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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.

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780061828164
List price: $9.99
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What a cute story! Funny story here about a bad football team that gets whipped into shape by Miss Nelson--dressed up as a mean substitute! Since I enjoy college football season, and have pulled for my college team through thick and thin, I liked this children's book!more
"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." Carol Shields in Unless

Unless is a contemplative book, told from the perspective of Reta Winters, 44, a translator and writer of light novels, as she copes with, and avoids coping with, an heart-rending event. Thrown out of her placid life, she contemplates her place in the world as writer and as a woman. It is well-written and feels true to life, however, the book seems too grounded in the particular to be universal.more
I'm still ruminating on this as I just finished it about an hour ago. The book was definitely dark, but the ending made up for it without seeming contrived or unearned. Shields has penned a fascinating character study of one woman facing a year of loss and re-evaluation. With plenty of meta (just how much of Shields is there in Reta Winters?), a book within the book, and a fluid handling of time, this is a complex and carefully constructed meditation on what it means to be a Western woman at the turn of the 21st Century. There's also a slight feel of a mystery as Reta and her husband attempt to determine what has happened (or not happened) to change their daughter so completely.

August 2007 COTC Book Club selection.more
Anthony's Blackboard Bear caused trouble by stealing Anthony's friends goods. Anthony was angry at first. However, when he realized that his bear did stealing, he and his bear returned the stolen goods, and therefore, Anthony was amended his bear faults, and mended the broken friedship with his friends.more
Shields' final novel is exquisite. She packs more into 200 pages than I knew was possible. While not plot driven, the story is nevertheless intriguing. Reta Winters is a happy novelist, wife, and mother of 3 girls who's never experienced heartache until she discovers that her 19 year old daughter has dropped out of life and is sitting for hours upon the hard Toronto pavement begging, with a sign around her neck reading "Goodness". Norah won't speak to her family, and Reta, unable to break through to her, must try and carry on with her life.The best parts of the book are letters that Reta composes to various authors speaking out against the exclusion of women in their writings. "But did you notice something even more significant: that there is not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once?" Reta becomes convinced that her daughters, as well as herself and all modern women, are undervalued and not recognized for their greatness or potential greatness. "What Norah wants is to belong to the whole world or at least to have, just for a moment, the taste of the whole world in her mouth. But she can't. So she won't."The reviews for this novel are quite mixed, but for me it was truly beautiful and said much that needed to be said. I've read only one other of Shield's novels, The Stone Diaries, which I loved, and I am sad to know that she's passed away. I can't wait to read the full body of her work.more
I really wanted to like this book but found it so flustrating to read. I was willing it along and just wanted it to be over. The actual plot of the book was interesting but with so much needless padding around it I felt like I was just wading through. I have a bit of a thing about finishing books that I start so I trudged on, even though this was a book club book and our meeting had already taken place. This book certainly wouldn't prompt me to search out any of Shields other novels. :(more
Half-way through this book, I was bored and about to give up on it."The examined life has had altogether too much good publicity. Introversion is piercingly dull in its circularity and lack of air."The narrator may have said this, but unfortunately she didn't practise what she preached; there was rather too much description of what was going on in Reta's head for my taste and nothing actually happened. But I gave it a second chance and it did improve. There was more information about what happened to Nora and how the rest of the family had reacted to it, Reta's new editor may have been annoying but at least his presence made the story perk up a bit, and the letters Reta wrote to men in her frustration at the invisibility of women in today's world were the best bit of all.Not really my cup of tea though.more
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.I love Carol Shields’ writing. This is only my second novel by Shields, but I have also read about 1/3 of her short story collection (with plans to read the rest). The first was the Pulitzer-winning The Stone Diaries, which I also loved. Something about Shields’ writing just speaks to me. I can’t really pinpoint it exactly — I just know that I would very much like to read all of her works at some point.Shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, Unless is a story about a mother’s grief and pain over her daughter, who is not dead, or on drugs, but IS, by choice, a street beggar. Norah just suddenly dropped out of college and is now on the streets. Reta, the mother, is an author and a naturally happy person. Up until this point she hasn’t really had any difficulty in her life. In fact, during an author interview:The radio host in Baltimore asked me — he must have been desperate — what was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. That stopped me short. I couldn’t think of the worst thing. I told him that whatever it was, it hadn’t happened yet. I knew, though, at that moment, what the nature of the “worst thing” would be, that it would be socketed somehow into the lives of my children.Though Reta has been with her children’s father Tom since they met, they have never married. Their relationship is a good one, but Reta has strong feelings about feminism and the role of women in society. She suspects that perhaps part of Norah’s problem lies in this area. Reta writes (but never sends) letters to editors and the like when she perceives an injustice has been done to women. An example:This will explain my despondency, and why I am burbling out my feelings to you. I am a forty-four-year old woman who was under the impression that society was moving forward and who carries the memory of a belief in wholeness. Now, suddenly, I see it from the point of view of my nineteen-year-old daughter. We are all trying to figure out what’s wrong with Norah. She won’t work at a regular job. She’s dropped out of university, given up her scholarship. She sits on a curbside and begs. Once a lover of books, she has resigned from the act of reading, and believes she is doing this in the name of goodness. She has no interest in cults, not in cultish beliefs or in that particular patronizing cultish nature of belonging. She’s too busy with her project of self-extinction. It’s happening very slowly and with much grief, but I’m finally beginning to understand the situation. My daughter Christine grinds her teeth at night, which is a sign of stress. Another daughter, Natalie, chews her nails. Women are forced into the position of complaining and then needing comfort. What Norah wants is to belong to the whole world or at least to have, just for a moment, the taste of the whole world in her mouth. But she can’t. So she won’t.Another strong passage:Because Tom is a man, because I love him dearly, I haven’t told him what I believe: that the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang. That’s the problem.I could put a hundred quotes from the book in this review; it is a book I will definitely be keeping. If you haven’t read any of Carol Shields yet, I strongly recommend her as an author.more
I find that Shields's characters are usually rather boring, a little too anchored in their bourgeois reality. This might have also been the case, had Norah not been sitting on a street corner with her sign Goodness. This injects some mystery from the beginning in the story - why this act of rebellion? Why "goodness"? What prompted it? Reta's rationalizations become a very intimate and personal interpretation of woman's place in today's world: the silence, obedience, acceptance. I became engrossed in these discussions. The term goodness also bothered me: so mild and tempered - why not greatness? But as the story unfolds, we suddenly understand Norah's perspective. While the ending can be accused of being a little too pat, it does not take away from a profound discourse. An enlightening read.more
Had a very interactive audience as I read this book to my first grade class! They seemed to already know the answer to the Pigeon's question :)more
I first read this book in 2003. Even though it has stayed with me, I re-read it now for Canada Reads, and I"m so glad I did. I am about the same age as the main character, Reta Winters. I, too, have teenaged children and this story talks about the powerlessness a mother can experiences as a beloved child makes a life choice that is dangerous, and incomprehensible. When they are young, you can fix almost anything, but they grow up.....Unless is a story of power and powerlessness. Carol Shields looks at this theme as a mother. Reta Winters has a happy marriage and three healthy, intelligent teenaged daughters. Yet, she cannot save her oldest daughter, Norah, who decides to be homeless and beg on the street with a sign reading "Goodness" hung from her neck.She also explores power from a feminist perspective. As one other reviewer said, women can be good, but not great. Reta Winters makes up letters in her head that she would like to send to people who continue to ignore the contributions and perspectives of women writers. She is faced with an editor who thinks the novel she's writing can "graduate" from chick lit to a serious book by moving the focus from the female to the male character.The book relates the idea of power to greatness in a way that I grasped much more on my second read -- my first time through, I was far more tuned into the story of a parent struggling to understand her child. This time, knowing what happens to Norah, I tuned in more to some of the other messages in the writing.And the writing is powerful. From the first sentence, I was grabbed by Carol Shields' greatness as an author. This, and the Stone Diaries, are my two favourite books by this author.more
A novel of quiet power, using the silence of a missing daughter, who turns up on the street where she sits every day with 'Goodness' around her neck, as a cipher, a metaphor for the historical and literary stifling and marginalisation of women - who can be good, but are not allowed to be great. [Feb 2005]more
I loved this book. I found it easy to read and good certainly relate to the character of the mother and also the daughter who tried to hold it all together for the family. I love Carol Shields' style. She explored many topics in the story including coming of age, women's issues and relationships.more
Unless left me with many things to think about and I could relate to the main character in her helplessness with a traumatic event concerning a child. I was touched on many levels (too personal to discuss), but I was also given a few giggles as well, after reading her letters to people who pissed her off. I liked this book so much I went and ordered six other books she has written, and, I am happy to say that once I am done with them there are plenty more to read!more
The story Unless is centered around 40-something light fiction author and translator Reta Winters and her model family: her common-law husband of 26-years Tom, their three intelligent daughters, Norah, Christine and Natalie, Reta's mother-in-law Lois and, of course, the family golden retriever, Pet. Their lives reach a cross-roads when 19-year-old Norah, their eldest daughter, disappears one spring day and is discovered by a family friend mute and begging on a Toronto street corner, with a one word sign hanging from her neck: GOODNESS. The story is Reta's examination of past events, the advances, or lack there of, in removing the gender inequities in the world and the really big question, WHY?I loved this story for a number of reasons. I found the writing style to be fluid and accessible - easy to read, understand and appreciate - while the story captures an ordinary family trying to cope and understand what, for them, is incomprehensible. Shields has turned the "writer writing about a writer writing" setup into something with depth, meaning and resonance without being 'over to top' in its portrayal. The same can be said for her approach in tackling the topic of feminism and the lack of acceptance that female writers can be "great writers" on par with their male counterparts. Reta's character is complex, displaying a number of contradictions and weaknesses for the reader to examine and ponder and carries an underlying tension through the story. Overall, I am very impressed with how the story captured my attention early on and held me, fascinated, through to the last word.more
Linda Holmes, of NPR, wrote a great article in the summer, in the middle of a Franzen fracas, about why chick lit is a bad title. If you recall, Johnathan Franzen's summer release, Freedom, was the darling of all the literati. (Admission: haven't read it, have no plans to read it, even though my Google Reader is full up of fans of his books.) Maureen Johnson also wrote a much linked article about the dearth of attention to woman writers, among other things. I so wish Carol Shields had been around to add her two cents worth, since I believe she had much to say about male/female writers and their books. In fact, she wrote about it in her last published book, Unless. In 2002.Reta Winters is a forty something writer, with every reason to be happy. Except, her nineteen year old daughter has suddenly dropped out of life, and is on a quest for goodness by begging on a street corner. Reta is given lots of comparisons about why this isn't so bad, but for her, it's everything. Shields starts the book off slowly, and I certainly felt the higher level of reading than I often read, but I felt stretched, in a very good way. With an author as the main character, there is lots of navel-gazing, and Reta even references herself as navel-gazing within the book, mocking herself for being an author and writing about writing. Part of the way Reta deals with her sadness and concern over her daughter, who she believes felt marginalized in a male dominated world, is to write letters pointing out the lack of female writers referenced in articles she's read.Unless is a big story of identification told in one woman's experience. Hey, isn't that what male writer's do? But when women do it, it's called chick lit or a story for women. When men do, they are describing the life experience and get awards. The best, or rather most infuriating part of the book, is when Reta's editor decides her sequel book should be a big 'literature' book. She'll just have to switch the focus from the female character's search for goodness to the male character's search for greatness. Yes, Carol Shields goes there. Rock on sister.more
I tried several times to read this book, but the writing style really bugged me and I simply could not get past the first chapter.more
The cover of this book makes it look like one of those 'Tragic Life Stories' that occupy a whole bookshelf in WHSmith and which I would rather have all my toenails pulled out than read. In contrast this book is actually very literary, unashamedly cerebral in tone, and has a crick in its neck from all the navel gazing it indulges in.The book's middle aged narrator has a nineteen year old daughter who has chosen to abandon the family home and live on the street, begging. Each of the book's chapters begins and ends with this central fact, meandering around like footprints in the snow that always lead back to the place they began. Though a good nine months pass during the course of the story, it almost seems that time is standing still, as the narrator indulges in the sort of introspection that is the luxury of the comfortably wealthy, trying to understand her daughter's actions. It reminded me a little of Erica Jong without the sex.Oddly enough, as the book reaches its last couple of chapters there is an unexpected flurry of action, as issues raised during the story are resolved. If there was any sense of disappointment in this, it was that we didn't get to hear any more about Mr Springer and his interference with the narrator's work. Their conversational exchanges were the highlight of the book for me.more
Enjoyed reading this over a few days.It made me think a little of the tradgedy of Ellen's short life. It made me think about writing. Reta's writing was cathartic, but not through a tell all about her circumstances, through a different lens. It me me think about writing a novel. I'm not sure I'm brave enough.more
This book was a loan from a friend and I thank her for the introduction to this wonderful novelist. This is the touching story of a mother's loss. Reta is a writer with a comfortable existence that is one day shattered by the knowledge that her eldest daughter has abandoned her life to beg on a street corner.The author has a remarkable ability to describe the simple everyday activities of life, and how this can enable us to get through each day when in reality that normally stable existence is falling apart around us. As the reader you are made to feel a part of Reta's family and I was at times moved to tears whilst sharing in her difficult journey.more
By Pulitzer winner. Looks as women's powerlessness: goodness (women) vs. greatness (men).more
A mostly melancholy book, but with lots of Carol Sheilds' unique insight, which I love. The concept of women being able to achieve "goodness but not greatness" was a major theme. This book made me think about women's roles, and mother-daughter relationships.more
This novel tells the story of Reta Winters, a writer of light fiction, whose eldest daughter suddenly withdraws from life and university to sit on a street corner, wearing a sign saying "Goodness". This explores how Reta comes to terms with this retreat, and examines the reasons behind it.This book is unlike anything I've read before. It covers quite raw emotions, as well as a funny look at society, so it is quite difficult to categorise. I definitely enjoyed reading it, although I'm not sure that "enjoy" is necessarily the right word, as this was so well-written that you were able to feel Reta's pain throughout, which made me want to carry on reading.I think this is a book that will stay with me for quite a while, and it may need to be one that I revisit, as I'm not sure the whole thing has really sunk in...more
A very deeply felt feminist book, in a way I haven't encountered lately. Not harsh, or angry; a sort of soft muted almost passive protest, yet one that came through very clearly, in those unsent letters Reta wrote. All those passive abstract words, adverbs and prepositions: goodness, unless, thereof, despite... "whatever" didn't quite stike the right note, though.A little too distanced from Norah, who I instinctively wanted to be the center of the book. But really it was about Reta, and I can accept that, her trauma of disconnect from her daughter.more
Fantastic book. I've been a Shields fan for a long time, and this is a masterpiece.more
Very well written, a mother tries to live and work while her young adult daughter is driven (for reasons clear at the end) to live on the streets. Intensely moving - but then I am the mother of adult daughters and can completely identify with the story (thank the goddess that it didn't happen to mine)First class.more
This book is the story of a mother's despair when she discovers her daughter has chosen to leave her comfortable, suburban existence and live on the street. Reta Winters is devastated to discover that her daughter Norah is spending her days on a Toronto street corner holding a sign that says "goodness." Her nights are spent in a shelter. Unless enters the interior world of a mother. We learn all of Reta's thoughts; what we learn very little of is Norah herself. Norah is arguably the most interesting character in the book. Instead we get Reta, reminiscing and thinking about all of the elements of her life, her marriage, and her children. Reta has spent her professional life translating the works of French feminist philosopher Danielle Westerman, and writing a chick lit novel of her own. We hear quite a bit about both the novel (which has a sequel in progress) and Westerman. This is far too much for a fictional philosopher whose contribution is never all that well explained, and novels are not especially interesting. Ultimately, Shields never really made me care about any of the characters except Norah, of whom I consistently wanted to hear more. This is one of those book where I suspect there are deeper things going on with the writing, but I simply couldn't engage enough to really investigate them.more
The story of Reta, a writer living near Toronto, whose oldest daughter suddenly quits college, leaves her boyfriend and their apartment, and becomes a street person, sitting on the same corner and panhandling every day and sleeping in a shelter for the homeless at night. The main thrust of the book is how the family deals with this situation. It was slow-going at first. The pace does pick up, and the answer to the mystery of why the daughter is doing what she is doing is very well laid out. There is a recurring feminist theme throughout the book and a lot of subtle details and philosophical angst that can stop you in your tracks, but keep going because it is worth it in the end.more
Brilliant -- shall expand latermore
Read all 38 reviews

Reviews

What a cute story! Funny story here about a bad football team that gets whipped into shape by Miss Nelson--dressed up as a mean substitute! Since I enjoy college football season, and have pulled for my college team through thick and thin, I liked this children's book!more
"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." Carol Shields in Unless

Unless is a contemplative book, told from the perspective of Reta Winters, 44, a translator and writer of light novels, as she copes with, and avoids coping with, an heart-rending event. Thrown out of her placid life, she contemplates her place in the world as writer and as a woman. It is well-written and feels true to life, however, the book seems too grounded in the particular to be universal.more
I'm still ruminating on this as I just finished it about an hour ago. The book was definitely dark, but the ending made up for it without seeming contrived or unearned. Shields has penned a fascinating character study of one woman facing a year of loss and re-evaluation. With plenty of meta (just how much of Shields is there in Reta Winters?), a book within the book, and a fluid handling of time, this is a complex and carefully constructed meditation on what it means to be a Western woman at the turn of the 21st Century. There's also a slight feel of a mystery as Reta and her husband attempt to determine what has happened (or not happened) to change their daughter so completely.

August 2007 COTC Book Club selection.more
Anthony's Blackboard Bear caused trouble by stealing Anthony's friends goods. Anthony was angry at first. However, when he realized that his bear did stealing, he and his bear returned the stolen goods, and therefore, Anthony was amended his bear faults, and mended the broken friedship with his friends.more
Shields' final novel is exquisite. She packs more into 200 pages than I knew was possible. While not plot driven, the story is nevertheless intriguing. Reta Winters is a happy novelist, wife, and mother of 3 girls who's never experienced heartache until she discovers that her 19 year old daughter has dropped out of life and is sitting for hours upon the hard Toronto pavement begging, with a sign around her neck reading "Goodness". Norah won't speak to her family, and Reta, unable to break through to her, must try and carry on with her life.The best parts of the book are letters that Reta composes to various authors speaking out against the exclusion of women in their writings. "But did you notice something even more significant: that there is not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once?" Reta becomes convinced that her daughters, as well as herself and all modern women, are undervalued and not recognized for their greatness or potential greatness. "What Norah wants is to belong to the whole world or at least to have, just for a moment, the taste of the whole world in her mouth. But she can't. So she won't."The reviews for this novel are quite mixed, but for me it was truly beautiful and said much that needed to be said. I've read only one other of Shield's novels, The Stone Diaries, which I loved, and I am sad to know that she's passed away. I can't wait to read the full body of her work.more
I really wanted to like this book but found it so flustrating to read. I was willing it along and just wanted it to be over. The actual plot of the book was interesting but with so much needless padding around it I felt like I was just wading through. I have a bit of a thing about finishing books that I start so I trudged on, even though this was a book club book and our meeting had already taken place. This book certainly wouldn't prompt me to search out any of Shields other novels. :(more
Half-way through this book, I was bored and about to give up on it."The examined life has had altogether too much good publicity. Introversion is piercingly dull in its circularity and lack of air."The narrator may have said this, but unfortunately she didn't practise what she preached; there was rather too much description of what was going on in Reta's head for my taste and nothing actually happened. But I gave it a second chance and it did improve. There was more information about what happened to Nora and how the rest of the family had reacted to it, Reta's new editor may have been annoying but at least his presence made the story perk up a bit, and the letters Reta wrote to men in her frustration at the invisibility of women in today's world were the best bit of all.Not really my cup of tea though.more
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.I love Carol Shields’ writing. This is only my second novel by Shields, but I have also read about 1/3 of her short story collection (with plans to read the rest). The first was the Pulitzer-winning The Stone Diaries, which I also loved. Something about Shields’ writing just speaks to me. I can’t really pinpoint it exactly — I just know that I would very much like to read all of her works at some point.Shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, Unless is a story about a mother’s grief and pain over her daughter, who is not dead, or on drugs, but IS, by choice, a street beggar. Norah just suddenly dropped out of college and is now on the streets. Reta, the mother, is an author and a naturally happy person. Up until this point she hasn’t really had any difficulty in her life. In fact, during an author interview:The radio host in Baltimore asked me — he must have been desperate — what was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. That stopped me short. I couldn’t think of the worst thing. I told him that whatever it was, it hadn’t happened yet. I knew, though, at that moment, what the nature of the “worst thing” would be, that it would be socketed somehow into the lives of my children.Though Reta has been with her children’s father Tom since they met, they have never married. Their relationship is a good one, but Reta has strong feelings about feminism and the role of women in society. She suspects that perhaps part of Norah’s problem lies in this area. Reta writes (but never sends) letters to editors and the like when she perceives an injustice has been done to women. An example:This will explain my despondency, and why I am burbling out my feelings to you. I am a forty-four-year old woman who was under the impression that society was moving forward and who carries the memory of a belief in wholeness. Now, suddenly, I see it from the point of view of my nineteen-year-old daughter. We are all trying to figure out what’s wrong with Norah. She won’t work at a regular job. She’s dropped out of university, given up her scholarship. She sits on a curbside and begs. Once a lover of books, she has resigned from the act of reading, and believes she is doing this in the name of goodness. She has no interest in cults, not in cultish beliefs or in that particular patronizing cultish nature of belonging. She’s too busy with her project of self-extinction. It’s happening very slowly and with much grief, but I’m finally beginning to understand the situation. My daughter Christine grinds her teeth at night, which is a sign of stress. Another daughter, Natalie, chews her nails. Women are forced into the position of complaining and then needing comfort. What Norah wants is to belong to the whole world or at least to have, just for a moment, the taste of the whole world in her mouth. But she can’t. So she won’t.Another strong passage:Because Tom is a man, because I love him dearly, I haven’t told him what I believe: that the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang. That’s the problem.I could put a hundred quotes from the book in this review; it is a book I will definitely be keeping. If you haven’t read any of Carol Shields yet, I strongly recommend her as an author.more
I find that Shields's characters are usually rather boring, a little too anchored in their bourgeois reality. This might have also been the case, had Norah not been sitting on a street corner with her sign Goodness. This injects some mystery from the beginning in the story - why this act of rebellion? Why "goodness"? What prompted it? Reta's rationalizations become a very intimate and personal interpretation of woman's place in today's world: the silence, obedience, acceptance. I became engrossed in these discussions. The term goodness also bothered me: so mild and tempered - why not greatness? But as the story unfolds, we suddenly understand Norah's perspective. While the ending can be accused of being a little too pat, it does not take away from a profound discourse. An enlightening read.more
Had a very interactive audience as I read this book to my first grade class! They seemed to already know the answer to the Pigeon's question :)more
I first read this book in 2003. Even though it has stayed with me, I re-read it now for Canada Reads, and I"m so glad I did. I am about the same age as the main character, Reta Winters. I, too, have teenaged children and this story talks about the powerlessness a mother can experiences as a beloved child makes a life choice that is dangerous, and incomprehensible. When they are young, you can fix almost anything, but they grow up.....Unless is a story of power and powerlessness. Carol Shields looks at this theme as a mother. Reta Winters has a happy marriage and three healthy, intelligent teenaged daughters. Yet, she cannot save her oldest daughter, Norah, who decides to be homeless and beg on the street with a sign reading "Goodness" hung from her neck.She also explores power from a feminist perspective. As one other reviewer said, women can be good, but not great. Reta Winters makes up letters in her head that she would like to send to people who continue to ignore the contributions and perspectives of women writers. She is faced with an editor who thinks the novel she's writing can "graduate" from chick lit to a serious book by moving the focus from the female to the male character.The book relates the idea of power to greatness in a way that I grasped much more on my second read -- my first time through, I was far more tuned into the story of a parent struggling to understand her child. This time, knowing what happens to Norah, I tuned in more to some of the other messages in the writing.And the writing is powerful. From the first sentence, I was grabbed by Carol Shields' greatness as an author. This, and the Stone Diaries, are my two favourite books by this author.more
A novel of quiet power, using the silence of a missing daughter, who turns up on the street where she sits every day with 'Goodness' around her neck, as a cipher, a metaphor for the historical and literary stifling and marginalisation of women - who can be good, but are not allowed to be great. [Feb 2005]more
I loved this book. I found it easy to read and good certainly relate to the character of the mother and also the daughter who tried to hold it all together for the family. I love Carol Shields' style. She explored many topics in the story including coming of age, women's issues and relationships.more
Unless left me with many things to think about and I could relate to the main character in her helplessness with a traumatic event concerning a child. I was touched on many levels (too personal to discuss), but I was also given a few giggles as well, after reading her letters to people who pissed her off. I liked this book so much I went and ordered six other books she has written, and, I am happy to say that once I am done with them there are plenty more to read!more
The story Unless is centered around 40-something light fiction author and translator Reta Winters and her model family: her common-law husband of 26-years Tom, their three intelligent daughters, Norah, Christine and Natalie, Reta's mother-in-law Lois and, of course, the family golden retriever, Pet. Their lives reach a cross-roads when 19-year-old Norah, their eldest daughter, disappears one spring day and is discovered by a family friend mute and begging on a Toronto street corner, with a one word sign hanging from her neck: GOODNESS. The story is Reta's examination of past events, the advances, or lack there of, in removing the gender inequities in the world and the really big question, WHY?I loved this story for a number of reasons. I found the writing style to be fluid and accessible - easy to read, understand and appreciate - while the story captures an ordinary family trying to cope and understand what, for them, is incomprehensible. Shields has turned the "writer writing about a writer writing" setup into something with depth, meaning and resonance without being 'over to top' in its portrayal. The same can be said for her approach in tackling the topic of feminism and the lack of acceptance that female writers can be "great writers" on par with their male counterparts. Reta's character is complex, displaying a number of contradictions and weaknesses for the reader to examine and ponder and carries an underlying tension through the story. Overall, I am very impressed with how the story captured my attention early on and held me, fascinated, through to the last word.more
Linda Holmes, of NPR, wrote a great article in the summer, in the middle of a Franzen fracas, about why chick lit is a bad title. If you recall, Johnathan Franzen's summer release, Freedom, was the darling of all the literati. (Admission: haven't read it, have no plans to read it, even though my Google Reader is full up of fans of his books.) Maureen Johnson also wrote a much linked article about the dearth of attention to woman writers, among other things. I so wish Carol Shields had been around to add her two cents worth, since I believe she had much to say about male/female writers and their books. In fact, she wrote about it in her last published book, Unless. In 2002.Reta Winters is a forty something writer, with every reason to be happy. Except, her nineteen year old daughter has suddenly dropped out of life, and is on a quest for goodness by begging on a street corner. Reta is given lots of comparisons about why this isn't so bad, but for her, it's everything. Shields starts the book off slowly, and I certainly felt the higher level of reading than I often read, but I felt stretched, in a very good way. With an author as the main character, there is lots of navel-gazing, and Reta even references herself as navel-gazing within the book, mocking herself for being an author and writing about writing. Part of the way Reta deals with her sadness and concern over her daughter, who she believes felt marginalized in a male dominated world, is to write letters pointing out the lack of female writers referenced in articles she's read.Unless is a big story of identification told in one woman's experience. Hey, isn't that what male writer's do? But when women do it, it's called chick lit or a story for women. When men do, they are describing the life experience and get awards. The best, or rather most infuriating part of the book, is when Reta's editor decides her sequel book should be a big 'literature' book. She'll just have to switch the focus from the female character's search for goodness to the male character's search for greatness. Yes, Carol Shields goes there. Rock on sister.more
I tried several times to read this book, but the writing style really bugged me and I simply could not get past the first chapter.more
The cover of this book makes it look like one of those 'Tragic Life Stories' that occupy a whole bookshelf in WHSmith and which I would rather have all my toenails pulled out than read. In contrast this book is actually very literary, unashamedly cerebral in tone, and has a crick in its neck from all the navel gazing it indulges in.The book's middle aged narrator has a nineteen year old daughter who has chosen to abandon the family home and live on the street, begging. Each of the book's chapters begins and ends with this central fact, meandering around like footprints in the snow that always lead back to the place they began. Though a good nine months pass during the course of the story, it almost seems that time is standing still, as the narrator indulges in the sort of introspection that is the luxury of the comfortably wealthy, trying to understand her daughter's actions. It reminded me a little of Erica Jong without the sex.Oddly enough, as the book reaches its last couple of chapters there is an unexpected flurry of action, as issues raised during the story are resolved. If there was any sense of disappointment in this, it was that we didn't get to hear any more about Mr Springer and his interference with the narrator's work. Their conversational exchanges were the highlight of the book for me.more
Enjoyed reading this over a few days.It made me think a little of the tradgedy of Ellen's short life. It made me think about writing. Reta's writing was cathartic, but not through a tell all about her circumstances, through a different lens. It me me think about writing a novel. I'm not sure I'm brave enough.more
This book was a loan from a friend and I thank her for the introduction to this wonderful novelist. This is the touching story of a mother's loss. Reta is a writer with a comfortable existence that is one day shattered by the knowledge that her eldest daughter has abandoned her life to beg on a street corner.The author has a remarkable ability to describe the simple everyday activities of life, and how this can enable us to get through each day when in reality that normally stable existence is falling apart around us. As the reader you are made to feel a part of Reta's family and I was at times moved to tears whilst sharing in her difficult journey.more
By Pulitzer winner. Looks as women's powerlessness: goodness (women) vs. greatness (men).more
A mostly melancholy book, but with lots of Carol Sheilds' unique insight, which I love. The concept of women being able to achieve "goodness but not greatness" was a major theme. This book made me think about women's roles, and mother-daughter relationships.more
This novel tells the story of Reta Winters, a writer of light fiction, whose eldest daughter suddenly withdraws from life and university to sit on a street corner, wearing a sign saying "Goodness". This explores how Reta comes to terms with this retreat, and examines the reasons behind it.This book is unlike anything I've read before. It covers quite raw emotions, as well as a funny look at society, so it is quite difficult to categorise. I definitely enjoyed reading it, although I'm not sure that "enjoy" is necessarily the right word, as this was so well-written that you were able to feel Reta's pain throughout, which made me want to carry on reading.I think this is a book that will stay with me for quite a while, and it may need to be one that I revisit, as I'm not sure the whole thing has really sunk in...more
A very deeply felt feminist book, in a way I haven't encountered lately. Not harsh, or angry; a sort of soft muted almost passive protest, yet one that came through very clearly, in those unsent letters Reta wrote. All those passive abstract words, adverbs and prepositions: goodness, unless, thereof, despite... "whatever" didn't quite stike the right note, though.A little too distanced from Norah, who I instinctively wanted to be the center of the book. But really it was about Reta, and I can accept that, her trauma of disconnect from her daughter.more
Fantastic book. I've been a Shields fan for a long time, and this is a masterpiece.more
Very well written, a mother tries to live and work while her young adult daughter is driven (for reasons clear at the end) to live on the streets. Intensely moving - but then I am the mother of adult daughters and can completely identify with the story (thank the goddess that it didn't happen to mine)First class.more
This book is the story of a mother's despair when she discovers her daughter has chosen to leave her comfortable, suburban existence and live on the street. Reta Winters is devastated to discover that her daughter Norah is spending her days on a Toronto street corner holding a sign that says "goodness." Her nights are spent in a shelter. Unless enters the interior world of a mother. We learn all of Reta's thoughts; what we learn very little of is Norah herself. Norah is arguably the most interesting character in the book. Instead we get Reta, reminiscing and thinking about all of the elements of her life, her marriage, and her children. Reta has spent her professional life translating the works of French feminist philosopher Danielle Westerman, and writing a chick lit novel of her own. We hear quite a bit about both the novel (which has a sequel in progress) and Westerman. This is far too much for a fictional philosopher whose contribution is never all that well explained, and novels are not especially interesting. Ultimately, Shields never really made me care about any of the characters except Norah, of whom I consistently wanted to hear more. This is one of those book where I suspect there are deeper things going on with the writing, but I simply couldn't engage enough to really investigate them.more
The story of Reta, a writer living near Toronto, whose oldest daughter suddenly quits college, leaves her boyfriend and their apartment, and becomes a street person, sitting on the same corner and panhandling every day and sleeping in a shelter for the homeless at night. The main thrust of the book is how the family deals with this situation. It was slow-going at first. The pace does pick up, and the answer to the mystery of why the daughter is doing what she is doing is very well laid out. There is a recurring feminist theme throughout the book and a lot of subtle details and philosophical angst that can stop you in your tracks, but keep going because it is worth it in the end.more
Brilliant -- shall expand latermore
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