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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.

Topics: 21st Century, Canadian Author, Daughters, Feminism, Mothers, and Psychological

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780061828164
List price: $10.99
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Availability for Unless: A Novel
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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
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
Read all 38 reviews

Reviews

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
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
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