- Prizes and Awards: Giller Prize Shortlist 2002
Unless: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Mar 26 2002
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Carol Shields has announced that Unless will be her last novel, and it may well be her most despairing book. Like many of her novels, Unless is about a writer--in this case, Reta Winters, a middle-aged novelist, mother, and translator who lives in a pastoral town just outside of Toronto. Reta lives a happy and successful life until her eldest daughter, Norah, abandons family, boyfriend, and university to panhandle on a busy and slightly seedy Toronto street corner, saying nothing and wearing a sign that reads only "Goodness." Norah's strange self-sacrifice sends Reta into despondency, and she seeks some sort of explanation for her daughter's behaviour in a profoundly pessimistic mode of feminism, insisting again and again that Norah, as a young woman, was simply shut out of any hope for a fulfilling life by a monolithic and masculinist culture.
This nearsightedly negative view of feminism, and Shields's narrator's inability to see her three daughters as human beings, strains the credibility of Unless. Shields can be a wonderfully ironic writer, but that temperament is largely absent here, and much of her usual sophistication is lost in Reta's solipsism. Her prose is as delicious as ever, but that alone is not enough to carry the book. Unless will appeal to devoted readers of Shields, but it cannot be counted among her strongest work. Those who have never read her (or who have only read The Stone Diaries) are better off turning to Swann or Larry's Party, or even seeking out her superb debut, Small Ceremonies. --Jack Illingworth
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 alternate Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Unfortunately, such laziness would do this rather wonderful and thought-provoking book a grave disservice - in that, although goodness - the idea of goodness, what it means to be good - is at the centre of this book, it shares that space with ruminations on the art of writing, and what it is to be a woman (and a woman writer, and a wife, and a mother, and a friend, and a person in the world) at the beginning of what we like to regard as a more enlightened time to be alive.
Reta Winters took her husband Tom's surname when they first got together (part of the reason being that she was originally Reta Summers and they both agreed that one of the seasons had to change). In lots of ways, this information (which is almost the opposite of a revelation, whatever the word for that is) contains the genesis of this novel writ small. They have three daughters together, Reta and Tom, the oldest of whom decides on the cusp of her nineteenth birthday to throw up her studies and live on the street with a simple cardboard sign - on which the word GOODNESS is written - on a string around her neck. Reta has no idea why her daughter has chosen this path and that - the abstract decision to withdraw from the life you are expected to live - throws the world out of kilter. To all intents and purposes life continues on as it did before (Reta and Tom still sleep together, Reta continues to write the sequel to her comic novel, the family entertain at Christmas).Read more ›
She points out the irony of writing about a woman who is writing about a woman writing. But going through the story, she teaches a clinic on how to write a story. I found it captivating and have read it repeatedly and recommended it to all the women in my life.
Shields also embraces the accusation that she writes about the small moments and small lives. This book was much more memorable than the Stone Diaries which was also fascinating.
Most recent customer reviews
When the book is finished you are asking yourself: what was that?
It did open your interest, though.
Carole writes very well using language that provides clarity and captivates interest but is beyond the vocabulary of the majority of people, possibly not her particulr set of... Read morePublished on Nov. 23 2011 by John
I very much enjoyed the book Unless, by Carol Shields. It is about a writer writing a book within a book - but that is only part of the story. Read morePublished on April 4 2011 by Darleen
Unless goes to page 320. Twenty pages are blank, and there is a space between every line. So its word count is about the same as Virginia Woolf's very slim, To the Lighthouse. Read morePublished on Dec 27 2010 by Gaboora
I agree with the reviewer, Carrad's, statement, "Moaning for pages and pages and pages about how female authors and characters have been marginalized for centuries does not justify... Read morePublished on Dec 12 2008 by Shepherdess Extraordinaire
I agree with the amazon.ca review. If you haven't read Shields before, do yourself a favour and read "Stone Diaries" or "Larry's Party" before you pick up this... Read morePublished on Dec 23 2005
I read this book because of recommendations and hype. UNLESS you have all kinds of time,,,don't bother,,,however, there are a few interesting pages so if you really are curious... Read morePublished on Nov. 16 2004 by Elina