Unless [NOOK Book]


Reta Winters, 44 years of age, has started a new sort of life. She has discovered the meaning of loss for the first time." For all of her days, Reta has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light fiction, novels 'for summertime'. This placid existence cracks open one fearful day when her beloved eldest daughter, Norah, drops out to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads "Goodness." Reta's search for what ...
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Reta Winters, 44 years of age, has started a new sort of life. She has discovered the meaning of loss for the first time." For all of her days, Reta has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light fiction, novels 'for summertime'. This placid existence cracks open one fearful day when her beloved eldest daughter, Norah, drops out to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads "Goodness." Reta's search for what drove her daughter to such a desperate statement turns into an unflinching and surprisingly funny meditation on where we find meaning and hope.
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Editorial Reviews

New Yorker
Reta Winters -- loving helpmeet to a doctor, mother of three cheerful daughters, and author of a successful comic novel -- has always considered herself happy, even blessed. Then her eldest child, nineteen-year-old Norah, briefly disappears and resurfaces as a panhandling mute on a Toronto street corner, holding up a homemade placard that says "Goodness." Shields's ability to use Reta's darkest fears to reveal the order lurking in chaos, without ever losing her light touch (Laurie Colwin comes to mind), is nothing short of astonishing.
From The Critics
Marvelously idiosyncratic, passionate and wise, Shields' tenth novel rollicks from beginning to end with sauciness and wit. The heroine is forty-four-year-old Reta Winters, who confesses her problems from the start: "It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now," she admits. The source of Reta's troubles is her firstborn, nineteen-year-old daughter, Norah, who recently dropped out of college and now spends her days on a Toronto street corner wearing a placard that reads "Goodness" around her neck. The reasons behind this erratic behavior are unclear. Reta obsessively wonders what went wrong while she attempts to write her second "comic" novel. The plot of Unless is secondary to its biting commentary, a fact that is destined to generate buzz among literary insiders but may leave readers looking for a traditional story less than enthralled. Plenty is said about the powerlessness of women, the absurdity of publishing and the denigration of our culture. The author laments the suppression of female writers by the male establishment, and she calls to task those who have elevated the lowest common denominator at the expense of originality, vision and talent. Shields never gets lost in the whorl of these discussions. Her feet are firmly planted, even as the pitiable planet spins.
—Beth Kephart

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. FYI: As revealed in an April 14, 2002 profile in the New York Times magazine, Shields, who has terminal breast cancer, believes this will be her last novel. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Unlike The Stone Diaries or Larry's Party, with their sweeping chronology of their characters' lives, Shields's new novel transpires over a few dark months. In elegant prose, it examines a woman's emotional journey following her eldest daughter's lapse into either asceticism or psychosis. The narrator, Reta Winters, lives with her physician husband, Tom, and three teenage daughters in a lovely suburban Toronto home. She has intelligent women friends and intellectual fulfillment translating the works of her mentor, an elderly French feminist. On the side, Reta is the author of a well-received novel of "light" fiction. However, the family's lives are radically transformed when her oldest daughter, Norah, leaves college and takes up begging on a Toronto street corner, wearing a sign saying "Goodness." Reta connects this act with women's essential powerlessness, while Tom suspects it to be post-traumatic stress. This remarkably liberal family maintains contact with Norah but doesn't intervene. Meanwhile, Reta distracts herself from her inner disquisition on loss, family, and the role of women by mentally manipulating the characters in her novel-in-progress and dealing with her fussy New York editor, who turns up just as the family crisis resolves itself. Finely detailed, thoughtful, and sometimes even humorous, this book is highly recommended for all fiction collections. Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From Pulitzer-winning Shields (The Stone Diaries, 1994, etc.), a tale about existential disarray that's spiked with feminist outrage and leavened with womanly wit. Until her daughter Norah begins living on the streets of Toronto in the spring of 2000, Reta Winters "thought tragedy was someone not liking my book." She and physician Tom Winters have been together for 22 years (although, mildly nonconformist children of the 1970s, they never married), and Reta has a modest literary reputation as author of a comic novel, My Thyme Is Up. Shortly after Norah leaves home, Reta starts a sequel, and we find her grieving and "at the same time plotting what Alicia will say to Roman" in Thyme in Bloom. Art sustains Reta, but its self-appointed interpreters infuriate her, and she writes letters to pundits who have ignored women's contributions to culture, an omission Reta gropingly feels has something to do with her daughter's turmoil. But because she's too suspicious of generalities to trust "the self-pitying harridan who has put down such words," she never mails them. Her first-person telling of all this, often quietly heartbreaking, is just as often bitingly humorous. Much of the fun comes at the expense of Reta's bombastic New York editor, who professes to find Big Issues in what Reta sees as light fiction but who proves able, in the story's most blistering development, to see Alicia as a stepping-stone to Roman's development. Typical of Shields's unerring pacing, this nasty revelation is followed by a crisis revealing why Norah became a street person. Reta's observations are so shrewd throughout, each detail so perfectly placed, that readers may not notice that the editor is the only other trulythree-dimensional character. The philosophical questions don't emerge with the same brilliance as Shields's portrait of the writer or her modest claim for the importance of a female perspective on tragedy. Still, there's enough here to maintain her claim as one of our most gifted and probing novelists.
Washington Post Book World
“Some hefty perceptions, fortunately shared with us in this fine novel.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“A luminous novel ...Shields writes with clarity, intelligence and generosity, finding meaning in most mundane details of home life.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“A novel of...assured intelligence and defiant vivacity.”
Time Magazine
“A superb new novel...a graceful coda, an arabesque performed over an abyss.”
Orlando Sentinel
“All the trademark Shields delights are robustly present: idiosyncratic plotting; limber prose...deep compassion...tart commentary and irreverent wit.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Unless succeeds beautifully...Shields [is] an expert at illuminating the complicated dynamics of off-kilter families.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Closely observed moments create the kind of subtle textures and elegant prose that won Ms. Shields the Pulitzer Prize.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“Relentlessly fine...imagined with style and vigor, melancholoy and wisdom.”
London Times (Sunday)
“Her wisdom and generosity of spirit are visible at every turn.”
Time magazine
“A superb new novel...a graceful coda, an arabesque performed over an abyss.”
Houston Chronicle
“Entirely satisfying… Shields’ voice, tender and moderated at all times, remains wise and very readable.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A fine book, poignant, witty, rich in character, vivid in its sense of place...surprisingly suspenseful.”
“With a poet’s precision, Shields dissects grief and makes coping with bad luck feel like domestic heroism.”
New Orleans Times-Picayune
“The best of her novels...fearless, smart, funny, beautifully written.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Remarkably subtle and unsettling...one of those books that make you regret that reading is a solitary pleasure.”
New York Times Book Review
“All novelists worth their fictional salt can create fine characters; Carol Shields creates lives. ”
Book Magazine
“Marvelously idiosyncratic, passionate and wise, Shields’ tenth novel rollicks from beginning to end with sauciness and wit.”
Newark Star Ledger
“When Shields is good she is very good. There are nuggets of pure gold in Unless.”
Los Angeles Times
“A thing of beauty—lucidly written, artfully ordered, riddled with riddles and undergirded with dark layers of philosophical meditations.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“An engaging, memorable novel.”
Hartford Courant
“A fitting farewell from an author revered for her graceful, insightful writing...sparkles with wry humor and elegant irony.”
The Oregonian (Portland)
“Truly, a miracle of language and perception.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Luminous ... Shields is a consummate master of tone and acute psychological insight.”
The New Yorker
“Nothing short of astonishing.”
Anita Shreve
“A brave, profound, and quirky novel with an undercurrent of the deeply amusing.”
Joanne Harris
“A wonderful, powerful book, written in a style which combines simplicity and elegance. I found it deeply moving.”
People Magazine
"With a poet’s precision, Shields dissects grief and makes coping with bad luck feel like domestic heroism."
Rachel Cusk
“A raw, subtle, inspiring novel about feminism, femininity, virtue, oppression and motherhood...I was inexpressibly moved by it.”
“With a poet’s precision, Shields dissects grief and makes coping with bad luck feel like domestic heroism.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061828164
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/17/2009
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 12,964
  • File size: 486 KB

Meet the Author

Carol Shields
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935, Carol Shields moved to Canada at the age of twenty-two, after studying at the University of Exeter in England, and then obtained her M.A. at the University of Ottawa. She started publishing poetry in her thirties, and wrote her first novel, Small Ceremonies, in 1976. Over the next three decades, Shields would become the author of over twenty books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a book of criticism on Susanna Moodie and a biography of Jane Austen. Her work has been translated into twenty-two languages.

In addition to her writing, Carol Shields worked as an academic, teaching at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia and the University of Manitoba. In 1996, she became chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She lived for fifteen years in Winnipeg and often used it as a backdrop to her fiction, perhaps most notably in Republic of Love. Shields also raised five children — a son and four daughters — with her husband Don, and often spoke of juggling early motherhood with her nascent writing career. When asked in one interview whether being a mother changed her as a writer, she replied, “Oh, completely. I couldn’t have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. And my children give me this other window on the world.”

The Stone Diaries, her fictional biography of Daisy Goodwill, a woman who drifts through her life as child, wife, mother and widow, bewildered by her inability to understand any of these roles, received excellent reviews. The book won a Governor General’s Literary Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, bringing Shields an international following. Her novel Swann was made into a film (1996), as was The Republic of Love (2003; directed by Deepa Mehta). Larry’s Party, published in several countries and adapted into a musical stage play, won England’s Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. And Shields’s final novel, Unless, was shortlisted for the Booker, Orange and Giller prizes and the Governor General’s Literary Award, and won the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction.

Shields’s novels are shrewdly observed portrayals of everyday life. Reviewers praised her for exploring such universal themes as loneliness and lost opportunities, though she also celebrated the beauty and small rewards that are so often central to our happiness yet missing from our fiction. In an eloquent afterword to Dropped Threads, Shields says her own experience taught her that life is not a mountain to be climbed, but more like a novel with a series of chapters.

Carol Shields was always passionate about biography, both in her writing and her reading, and in 2001 she published a biography of Jane Austen. For Shields, Austen was among the greatest of novelists and served as a model: “Jane Austen has figured out the strategies of fiction for us and made them plain.” In 2002, Jane Austen won the coveted Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. A similar biographical impulse lay behind the two Dropped Threads anthologies Carol Shields edited with Marjorie Anderson; their contributors were encouraged to write about those experiences that women are normally not able to talk about. “Our feeling was that women are so busy protecting themselves and other people that they still feel they have to keep quiet about some subjects,” Shields explained in an interview.

Shields spoke often of redeeming the lives of people by recording them in her own works, “especially that group of women who came between the two great women's movements…. I think those women’s lives were often thought of as worthless because they only kept house and played bridge. But I think they had value.”

In 1998, Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer. Speaking on her illness, Shields once said, “It’s made me value time in a way that I suppose I hadn’t before. I’m spending my time listening, listening to what's going around, what's happening around me instead of trying to get it all down.” In 2000, Shields and her husband Don moved from Winnipeg to Victoria, where they lived until her passing on July 16, 2003, from complications of breast cancer, at age 68.


Carol Shields's characters are often on the road less traveled, and the trip is never boring. She has written about a folklorist, a poet, a maze designer, a translator, even other writers -- appropriate professions in novels in which characters struggle to find their own paths in life.

Shields often focused on female characters, most notably in The Stone Diaries, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel documenting the birth, death, and everything in between of Daisy Goodwill. Goodwill's story is told over a century, in various voices, featuring Shields's wry humor and her ability to convey what she has called "the arc of human life."

But don't pigeonhole Shields as a "women's writer." "I have directed a fair amount of energy and rather a lot of rage into that particular corner [of the] problem of men and women, particularly men and women who write and how women's novels are perceived differently from men's," Shields said in a 2001 interview. In 1997's Larry's Party, she swapped genders, writing from the perspective of a male floral designer who discovers a passion for mazes.

Unafraid to experiment with genres, Shields wrote an epistolary novel (A Celibate Season, coauthored with Blanche Howard), a sort of "literary mystery" about the posthumous discovery of a murdered poet's genius (Swann), and short stories (collected in Dressing for the Carnival and other titles). Though she often covered serious topics, she rarely did so without humor. Her novel of mid-life romance, Republic of Love, was called by The New York Times a "touching, elegantly funny, luscious work of fiction," an assessment that could be applied to the bulk of her work.

Shields changed her viewpoint yet again for Unless, but the circumstance was a tragic one. The book, which resurrects the main character from Dressing Up for the Carnival's "A Scarf," was written during the author's battle with breast cancer. "I never want to sound at all mystical about writing,'' she said in a 2002 interview, ''but this book -- it just came out." Though not touching on her own illness, Shields did what she had always done -- took her own questions and lessons, then used them to produce a story that speaks its own truth.

Shields passed away on July 16, 2003; she was 68.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Carol Ann Warner
    2. Hometown:
      Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 2, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Oak Park, Illinois
    1. Date of Death:
      July 16, 2003
    2. Place of Death:
      Toronto, Canada

Read an Excerpt


It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.

In my new life -- the summer of the year 2000 -- I am attempting to “count my blessings.” Everyone I know advises me to take up this repellent strategy, as though they really believe a dramatic loss can be replaced by the renewed appreciation of all one has been given. I have a husband, Tom, who loves me and is faithful to me and is very decent looking as well, tallish, thin, and losing his hair nicely. We live in a house with a paid-up mortgage, and our house is set in the prosperous rolling hills of Ontario, only an hour’s drive north of Toronto. Two of our three daughters, Natalie, fifteen, and Christine, sixteen, live at home. They are intelligent and lively and attractive and loving, though they too have shared in the loss, as has Tom.

And I have my writing.

“You have your writing!” friends say. A murmuring chorus: But you have your writing, Reta. No one is crude enough to suggest that my sorrow will eventually becomematerial for my writing, but probably they think it.

And it’s true. There is a curious and faintly distasteful comfort, at the age of forty-three, forty-four in September, in contemplating what I have managed to write and publish during those impossibly childish and sunlit days before I understood the meaning of grief. “My Writing”: this is a very small poultice to hold up against my damaged self, but better, I have been persuaded, than no comfort at all.

It’s June, the first year of the new century, and here’s what I’ve written so far in my life. I’m not including my old schoolgirl sonnets from the seventies -- Satin-slippered April, you glide through time / And lubricate spring days, de dum, de dum -- and my dozen or so fawning book reviews from the early eighties. I am posting this list not on the screen but on my consciousness, a far safer computer tool and easier to access:

1. A translation and introduction to Danielle Westerman’s book of poetry, Isolation, April 1981, one month before our daughter Norah was born, a home birth naturally; a midwife; you could almost hear the guitars plinking in the background, except we did not feast on the placenta as some of our friends were doing at the time. My French came from my Québécoise mother, and my acquaintance with Danielle from the University of Toronto, where she taught French civilization in my student days. She was a poor teacher, hesitant and in awe, I think, of the tanned, healthy students sitting in her classroom, taking notes worshipfully and stretching their small suburban notion of what the word civilization might mean. She was already a recognized writer of kinetic, tough-corded prose, both beguiling and dangerous. Her manner was to take the reader by surprise. In the middle of a flattened rambling paragraph, deceived by warm stretches of reflection, you came upon hard cartilage.

I am a little uneasy about claiming Isolation as my own writing, but Dr. Westerman, doing one of her hurrying, over-the-head gestures, insisted that translation, especially of poetry, is a creative act. Writing and translating are convivial, she said, not oppositional, and not at all hierarchical. Of course, she would say that. My introduction to Isolation was certainly creative, though, since I had no idea what I was talking about.

I hauled it out recently and, while I read it, experienced the Burrowing of the Palpable Worm of Shame, as my friend Lynn Kelly calls it. Pretension is what I see now. The part about art transmuting the despair of life to the “merely frangible,” and poetry’s attempt to “repair the gap between ought and naught” -- what on earth did I mean? Too much Derrida might be the problem. I was into all that pretty heavily in the early eighties.

2. After that came “The Brightness of a Star,” a short story that appeared in An Anthology of Young Ontario Voices (Pink Onion Press, 1985). It’s hard to believe that I qualified as “a young voice” in 1985, but, in fact, I was only twenty-nine, mother of Norah, aged four, her sister Christine, aged two, and about to give birth to Natalie -- in a hospital this time. Three daughters, and not even thirty. “How did you find the time?” people used to chorus, and in that query I often registered a hint of blame: was I neglecting my darling sprogs for my writing career? Well, no. I never thought in terms of career. I dabbled in writing. It was my macramé, my knitting. Not long after, however, I did start to get serious and joined a local “writers’ workshop” for women, which met every second week, for two hours, where we drank coffee and had a good time and deeply appreciated each other’s company, and that led to:

3. “Icon,” a short story, rather Jamesian, 1986. Gwen Reidman, the only published author in the workshop group, was our leader. The Glenmar Collective (an acronym of our first names – not very original) was what we called ourselves. One day Gwen said, moving a muffin to her mouth, that she was touched by the “austerity” of my short story -- which was based, but only roughly, on my response to the Russian icon show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. My fictional piece was a case of art “embracing/repudiating art,” as Gwen put it, and then she reminded us of the famous “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and the whole aesthetic of art begetting art, art worshipping art, which I no longer believe in, by the way. Either you do or you don’t. The seven of us, Gwen, Lorna, Emma Allen, Nan, Marcella, Annette, and I (my name is Reta Winters -- pronounced Ree-tah) self-published our pieces in a volume titled Incursions and Interruptions, throwing in fifty dollars each for the printing bill. The five hundred copies sold quickly in the local bookstores, mostly to our friends and families. Publishing was cheap, we discovered. What a surprise. We called ourselves the Stepping Stone Press, and in that name we expressed our mild embarrassment at the idea of self-publishing, but also the hope that we would “step” along to authentic publishing in the very near future. Except Gwen, of course, who was already there. And Emma, who was beginning to publish op-ed pieces in the Globe and Mail.
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Reading Group Guide

Topics for Discussion


1. Many definitions for goodness are raised in the novel. Do you think that Reta ever comes to a conclusion about what goodness is? If not, do you think she has realized anything about the nature of goodness?

2. What do you think Norah means when she talks to her mother about not being able to love anyone enough because she loves the world more? Do you think that Reta understands what Norah is saying?

3. How would you characterize Norah's relationship with her mother? How do you feel about Tom and Reta's response to Norah's leaving? Would you describe them as 'good' parents?

4. Why do you think Norah decides to abandon her life and stand on a street corner? What do you think that "goodness" means to her? Does it matter that we never learn why the woman on the Toronto street corner set herself on fire?


5. Why do you think Reta spends so much time thinking about Mrs. McGinn and the envelope she found behind the radiator, even after she realizes that it's just a baby shower invitation? How much of what we know about Norah comes from Reta's imagination?

6. Why do you think it's so important for Reta to buy the perfect scarf for Norah? Do you think the scarf matters?

Men and women:

7. Do you think there's any significance to the fact that Tom and Reta aren't married?

8. Consider the scene when Reta has the theory of relativity explained to her by Colin Glass. Do you think that Reta understands what Colin is saying? How would you describe the nature of Reta's tone in this exchange?


9. Compare Reta and Danielle Westerman. Name the attributes you do and don't admirein each of them.

10. How serious do you think Reta is about her work? What do you think about the fact that she writes (but does not send) various letters about woman writers not being taken seriously?

11. What's the impact of Reta Winters being introduced through a list of her literary achievements?

Writers writing about writers writing about writers:

12. Are there ever times when you feel like Carol Shields is narrating the book? If so, can you identify particular moments when this happens? Do you consider this mixed narrative style effective? Why or why not?


13. Do you have any ideas about why Lois is silent for most of the novel? What do you think about the fact that she basically tells her entire life to Arthur Springer?

14. The novel's epigraph reads: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels heartbeat and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of that silence". What do you think of this quote? Do you think it's an appropriate introduction to the novel?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 26 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 26 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2003

    A Rare Gem

    My own ignorance is an embarrassment to me. I never heard of Shields -- a Pulitzer winner! -- until I stumbled upon a review of this novel. I know why she has been honored with that most coveted of prizes; she weaves magic with words. That's it. Plain and simple. This book is a powerful, but oh-so-necessary, meditation on the state of women in the modern world. Women seeking a place, a voice, a name. Philosophical and meditative, yes, but not a screaming-in-your-face ode to feminism. Much more humane than that, and that is where Shilds shines her brightest.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2003

    A gem of a book!

    I stumbled across this book in the library and after reading it (in about 3 hours) was amazed that I had never heard of this author before! She is simply a fantastic writer, so open and honest and clear, I felt like I was living right along beside her in the story. It's one of those books you hate to see the end coming because you'll miss it so much! I have since been reading everything by this woman I can get my hands on. Where has she been hiding?

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2002


    Two big time winners are paired in this audio book - author Carol Shields took home the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for 'The Stone Diaries,' and actor Joan Allen has been thrice nominated for an Academy Award and twice named for a Tony. Allen, a Broadway and film veteran, delivers a consummate reading of this story of one family's tragedy set amidst life on the cusp of the 21st century. Listeners will be rapt - seduced by Allen's voice and luxuriating in the author's remarkable prose. Enjoying the fruits of success as a writer and translator, Reta Winters has every reason to believe she has it all - a devoted husband, three outstanding daughters, and a covey of good friends. Her world is tilted when her oldest child leaves college, and deserts family and boyfriend to take up residence on a street corner with a sign reading 'Goodness.' Understandably anguished Reta tries to fathom what might have caused her daughter to take such action. It is in this search that listeners will find a sometimes disturbing, at other times heartening view of life as it is today.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2006

    Not Exceptional

    I picked up this book in an airport on my way to europe. I read it on trains and in hostels. I liked the plot, but I didn't feel it was very believable. She did not suck me into the story. The whole time, I felt like an outsider, just an observer. I want to connect more with the characters. It was just okay.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2004

    absolutely astonishing

    Carol Shields wrote a moving and compelling story about the struggles of Norah and her family. The plot was well developed as were the characters. A beautiful novel written by a fine author.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2003

    Surpisingly insightful

    When Unless was recommended to me by a teacher, I'll admit that I was skeptical. I was expecting the 'touchy-feely,' saccharine storyline typical of mother-daughter fiction. It was a plesant surprise to find that, in addition to a well-constructed plot, Shields (through her main character) included several poignant observations. The insight into Reta's thoughts made Unless superior to typical 'mother-daughter fiction.' Recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2003

    Wonderful book. Ms. Shields passing is a loss to all.

    I adored this book. It was so beautiful, I laughed, cried and got a better sense of myself. Sometimes, things happen that change your path and this book explores that concept beautifully. I just read that Carol Shields passed away this week. Go in Peace.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2003

    A Powerful Statement

    Wow! Carol Shields has such an amazing ability to turn a phrase in such a way that, for days after closing the book for what seems to be the last time, you find yourself wondering "how could she be so open & honest with me? She doesn't even know me!" At the conclusion of "Unless", I found myself in an emotional funk. It felt like losing a very, very close friend. I guess I could simply buy another of her books, but that would be far to easy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2002

    Touching...a lovely book

    As the main character in this book contemplates the meaning of her daughter's actions, the reader cannot help but feel her anguish and profound love for her daughter. The book is written in a style that keeps one riveted, and the ending will both shock and relieve the reader. For anyone who has never given up on a loved one who has been a source of anguish, this book will touch your heart.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2002


    I loved this book. It is sad, yet so real. It touches the reader.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2014


    This novel moved so slowly, and hardly kept my attention. The narrator spent so much time in her thoughts, and there was little actual action.

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  • Posted March 31, 2014

    While the author has a fine ability to use language, I found the

    While the author has a fine ability to use language, I found the book's rambling ruminations tedious. Normally I would browse such a book to get the gist of the storyline and learn the ending but I couldn't even make myself do that with this one. Finally I thumbed through to the last of the book only to see what the secret was regarding Norah and called it quits. Won't be looking for anything else by this author.

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  • Posted April 22, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    I had to read this book for a report in my class. I have to admit I couln't get into it. I was forcing myself to read it. After 130 pages I FINALLY got into it, and now I'm glad I actually finished it. It was such a touching book. I could actually feel Reta's pain. Very moving.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2006

    It's worth it...

    Shields realistically represents the turmoil of grief. Please give this book a chance. Take your time and pay attention. It is worth it!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2006

    Does this story ever begin?

    Seventy-eight pages into this selection for my book club, and I'm still waiting for something to happen. Introspection can be interesting, but not if it consists of an unchanging thought repeated throughout one-third of a book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2006


    Reading the book was a drag. I felt that Shields was telling the story and not showing. The characters were not touched on enough. This just may be a book for women with a boring life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2004

    Another look into the soul by Carol Shields

    Shields again goes below the surface and explores the the deeper life of a 40's woman dealing with self, children, husband and the social order. And a writer writing about a writer writing through all this. Fantastic!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2004

    Hoped for so much more

    While I believe that Ms. Shields was a wonderful writer, I had a mixed reaction to this novel. I felt that most of the flashbacks were unnecessary and slowed down the pace of the book. Overall, it was alright, however, I wouldn't recommend it to other readers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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