Unlessby Carol Shields
Reta Winters has many reasons to be happy: Her three almost grown daughters. Her twenty-year relationship with their father. Her work translating the larger-than-life French/i>
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
"Unless you're lucky, unless you're healthy, fertile, unless you're loved and fed, unless you're offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair."
Reta Winters has many reasons to be happy: Her three almost grown daughters. Her twenty-year relationship with their father. Her work translating the larger-than-life French intellectual and feminist Danielle Westerman. Her modest success with a novel of her own, and the clamour of her American publisher for a sequel. Then in the spring of her forty-fourth year, all the quiet satisfactions of her well-lived life disappear in a moment: her eldest daughter Norah suddenly runs from the family and ends up mute and begging on a Toronto street corner, with a hand-lettered sign reading GOODNESS around her neck.
GOODNESS. With the inconceivable loss of her daughter like a lump in her throat, Reta tackles the mystery of this message. What in this world has broken Norah, and what could bring her back to the provisional safety of home? Reta's wit is the weapon she most often brandishes as she kicks against the pricks that have brought her daughter down: Carol Shields brings us Reta's voice in all its poignancy, outrage and droll humour.
Piercing and sad, astute and evocative, full of tenderness and laughter, Unless will stand with The Stone Diaries in the canon of Carol Shields's fiction.
“In Unless . . ., Carol Shields’s brilliant latest novel, she explores the notion of goodness and the writing process and how society tries to shuffle smart uncompromising women off to the margins of life. In a lesser mortal’s hands, such a book would be an earnest snore, but Shields wields a wicked wit that hits close to the bone. Think the word “unless” implies ambivalence? This book is a sure thing.” Chatelaine
“[Y]et another delectable investigation into human folly . . .” Library Journal
“Brilliant, humane and deeply satisfying…. It is part of Shields’s genius that she so often offers up humour and compassion on the same plate sometimes spiced with a subtle political comment or two. But, I repeat, this is only a part of her genius. The true gift that she gives us is that of her enormous wisdom, a wisdom that is achingly apparent in this amazing combination of darkness and light, humour and pathos called Unless. The fact that there are no clear answers to the questions that surround the nature of goodness, happiness, sorrow, does not mean that these conditions should remain unexamined. It is examinations of this kind that enhance life itself. And who better than this author to show us where to look, what to pay attention to? What better guide than a book like Unless, and what better companion than Carol Shields?” Jane Urquhart, The Globe and Mail
“Unless does offer hope simply in its accomplishment, in its soothing spirit of goodness that somehow transcends both character and narrative.” National Post
“Once again, Carol Shields takes the lives of ordinary people and exposes the human heart at its best….life in general and the lives of women in particular are viewed in Shields’ work with an elegant confluence of simplicity and complexity.” Times-Colonist
“…poignant, yet often astringently funny….as ever, Shields’ graceful prose is a pleasure to read. She has a remarkable way of describing things one might already know, but she does so in surprising, fresh and distinctly new ways, ways that allow the reader to understand something anew.” Winnipeg Free Press
“Carol Shields is one of that small group of writers among them, Alice Munro, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, and yes, Joan Clark capable of making the ordinary utterly and completely extraordinary.” The Calgary Herald
“‘Unless’ is a signal word, curious, a warning and a sign. As this is a signal novel, profound and resonant, written with the virtuosity and understated brilliance that is distinctive to Carol Shields. Quite simply, Unless is a masterpiece. Brava! Brava!” The Ottawa Citizen
“If writers were rivers, Shields would flow more deeply and more mysteriously than it would appear from standing on the bank.” Kitchener-Waterloo Record
“Reading the book is like having an intimate conversation with an old friend….Funny and sad, comic and poignant all at the same time, Unless is the continuation of a conversation that has been ongoing among women for generations.” The Chronicle-Herald (Halifax)
“Generous and inquiring of heart, muted in its palette, this is a grammar of melancholy: of a particular sadness, both domestic and worldly, that arrives unbidden and settles in…. Outrage, humour, compassion, and the elegant arcs of language that distinguish Carol Shields’s enduring body of work: these are here in spades. Complacency is absent, and anything that smells of defeat. Unless is a graceful summing-up a backward glance, an acknowledgement of this moment, and, finally, the truest assurance that art can give: the future starts now.” Bill Richardson, Georgia Straight
“Unless is a triumph; a complex and rich study of family, the illusion of happiness, the process of writing and what it means to be a woman trying to find a place in a literal and/or literary world.” The Edmonton Journal
“A novel for the ages…. Unless is the work of a master writer at the peak of her powers…. Unless has a sense of the timeless about it, a sense that it will be read with as much eagerness 100 years from now as it will be today.” Vancouver Sun
“From page one [Shields} commands her place as a writer capable of astounding prose and perspective….It is the kind of writing that makes one stop, take a breath, then reread.” The Hamilton Spectator
“…moving, satisfying and unsettling all at once.” The Gazette (Montreal)
“[W]ithout question, her most powerful novel to date. . . . [A]t once witty and acute, deeply intelligent and profoundly tender. . . . . This novel offers a tunnel into the light, into an alternate plane where the interior voice of an intelligent woman is heard, astringent, tender and clear.” Maclean’s
“[Unless] is altogether engaging, thought-provoking and easily ranks among Shields’ best work.” The Kingston-Whig Standard
“Shields shares with fellow Canadian Alice Munro not only her Ontario milieu but also a gift for psychological acuity expressed in limpid, shimmering prose.” Booklist
"All novelists worth their fictional salt can create characters; Carol Shields creates lives...As with all her work, the lives she creates [here] are lovingly delineated, shot through with recognizable reality. The writing itself is perhaps better than ever, pellucid and knowing, as naturally paced as breathing itself, yet with images so apt they pounce off the page...Shields' readers will encounter great poignancy and great wisdom in this book...Carol Shields remakes the world and returns it to us, with hope, grace and redeeming life." New York Times Book Review (US)
"Like The Stone Diaries and its tour-de-force follow-up novel, Larry's Party, Unless presents itself, almost insistently, as a story about ordinary lives. But then, through her sensitive observation and exacting prose, the author proceeds to flip them over and show us their uncommon depths" Washington Post Book World (US)
"Unless is a formidable meditation on reality: it takes the vessel of fiction in its hands and hurls it to the floor. Shields' unambiguous prose is here put to the service of her intellectual daring and the result is a book that speaks without pretension about its strange and singular subject: the relationship between women and culture, the nature of artistic endeavour, and the hostility of female truth to representations of itself...Shields has produced a very, very clever book about motherhood, honour, art, language and love. It is a lament, a punch in the face, an embrace. I want to call it a masterpiece but I think I'll leave that for a man to say." New Statesman (UK)
"....a deceptively philosophical novel that succeeds in being both disturbing and reassuring in it multiple truths....the always polite, deeply subversive Shields has managed to expose, even explode, the artifice at the heart of fiction's conventions, those slightly dishonest, unwritten rules of which everyone is aware but which no one really mentions....Shields, in common with many North American writers, possesses that mastery of the ordinary that makes fiction breathe." Irish Times
"Unless is an extraordinary and dangerous novel. Dangerous because, like good philosophy, it asks the most fundamental questions, questions we try to avoid in our daily lives, as we study the 'art of diversion'. There are no easy answers to those questions 'what is goodness? what is happiness' but what makes a novelist great is the preparedness to ask them and Carol Shields asks them more scrupulously and elegantly than most." The Scotsman
"Unless is a joy to read, a writer working at the top of her game, bringing a remarkable intelligence to bear on both the human and the literary condition." Financial Times (US)
"Mothers have searched for their lost daughters in literature ever since Demeter plunged into the underworld to bring back the errant Persephone. Carol Shields' intriguing new novel mines this rich tradition to moving effect.... Shields invents a heroine forced to discard her suspicion of feminism and tiptoe towards it, learning to ask questions about social exclusion and human justice....This is [her] most interesting novel to date." The Independent (UK)
"...the book's challenging structure ultimately reveals its hidden ambitions. Shields once again delivers a stunningly capacious portrait of art's least favourite subject, an ordinary happy life." Time Out New York
"With characteristically magical prose and meticulous observation, Shields brings to life Reta's anguish and bewilderment with a vividness that is so moving, so deeply felt, that you linger over every exquisite word, reading it and rereading it, never wanting the page to end. It is a masterpiece in the most delicate miniature" Daily Mail (UK)
"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." Publishers Weekly (US) starred
"If ever a book deserved to be short-listed for the Booker, it is this one." Publishing News (UK)
"It is part of Shields's genius that she so often offers up humour and compassion on the same plate - sometimes spiced with a subtle political comment or two. But this...is only part of her genius. The true gift that she gives us is that of her enormous wisdom, a wisdom that is achingly apparent in this amazing combination of darkness and light, humour and pathos called UNLESS" Globe and Mail
"Unless is, in part, a meditation on the worth of a life spent writing Reta Winters, its protaganist, is herself a writer...Reta's letters are full of things Carol Shields has clearly long wanted to get off her chest and they have a real engine, energy and sparky animus to them...Read [Unless] for the sheer life of the last chapter wherein the conditional title is explained, but every narrative thread, this not being a comedy, is not tied up." The Herald (Glasgow)
"Nobody better captures the comic lunacy of the quotidien...but there is no mistaking the sharp mind in the background....Shields herself must be every editor's dream. She writes like an angel, awesome in the intelligence of her observations and never less than elegant in expressing them." Sunday Telegraph (UK)
"Shields is probably our most intelligent and beguiling observer of the everyday drama of common existence. Unless is her most raw and intentful novel yet, centred on tragedy and loss rather than the more expected themes of marital connectedness, the delicate architecture of desire and the necessity of peace, although all these subjects have a place in this exquisite new work. The novel that Reta wants to write is 'about something happening, About characters moving against a 'there'. This is just what her creator has achieved, with a matchless sensitivity that makes you draw in your breath." Sunday Times (UK)
"Unless is a fierce novel in which the 'f' word, feminism, rears its head. [It] is a book that celebrates the lives and concerns of women and plumbs the pitfalls of being female but refrains from male-bashing....Reta writes loopy, funny, marvellously outraged letters that she never sends to authors and editors about their omission of women in their discussions of the 'Great Books' or their failure to cite any women in their references....Reta Winters is a spectacular character, a loving, wise, fallible, accomplished and flawed woman who turns inside to seek the answers about her daughter that the world won't provide." Rocky Mountain News (US)
"Carol Shields's latest novel [is] her most questing and perhaps most personal yet. Unless is a defence of the art of fiction, but at the same time is deeply sceptical of it. It is intellectual and philosophical, but at the same time celebrates the mundane. Only a writer with the technical skill and warm humanity of Shields is capable of holding such contradictions in the delicate and satisfying balance that she achieves here...Unless is the purest expression of her art. It is required reading." The Mail on Sunday (UK)
"Her expertly deft touch with character and place, her sly merging of clues with cluelessness, ultimately blossom, Shields-like, in gold-minted scenes that not only answer the hard questions pointed at the heart but reward every single agonizing moment spent helplessly watching over a lost child in hope she will come home." Toronto Star
"Unless is her angriest book to date a study in awakening and the belated loss of innocence." The Guardian (UK)
"Some books come along at just the right time Erica Jong's 'Fear of Flying', Doris Lessing's 'The Golden Notebook' or Syvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar' come to mind capturing the exact thoughts and feelings of women at a certain moment in history. Carol Shields' 10th novel Unless is just such a book. In Unless, now the best of her novels, Shields has illuminated not only one woman's life, but has reflected the joys, sorrows and anger found in the lives of many women.....I love this book. It has mattered in my life in a big way that few books matter in a reader's life. I have read it three times now and I will read it again and again, because each reading brings something new and thought-provoking, something disturbing and energizing; each time I find something else to admire in its intricate construction, its precise use of language. It speaks the truth with crystalline clarity." The Times-Picayune (US)
"From Pulitzer-winning Carol Shields, a tale about existential disarray that's spiked with feminist outrage and leavened with womanly wit...[Shields] maintains her claim as one of our most gifted and probing novelists." Kirkus (US) starred
"Shields shares with fellow Canadian Alice Munro not only her Ontario milieu but also a gift for psychological acuity expressed in limpid, shimmering prose." Booklist (US)
“Thoughtfully engaging, Shields has made Unless a true masterwork flowing with emotion, intelligence and the grace of the human condition that is able to bear personal tragedy and eventual triumph.” The Outreach Connection
“Carol Shields’ writing is lovely to read. I just someone would sit still and let me read it to them. It sounds so right. Her characters are us, with all our small vanities and strong opinions.” Red Deer Advocate
“Shields knows exactly what she's doing, dropping tidbits of information at just the right moment, letting some humour peak through the pain…. Shields’s intelligence is awesome, and it comes across in effortless prose, the kind that makes you stop to read a phrase aloud and marvel at the author’s wondrous skill.” NOW
Praise for Carol Shields
“Her particular kind of humanity just dazzles me. It’s the foundation of her commitment to writing as a form of redemption, redeeming the lives of lost or vanished women.” Eleanor Wachtel for The Globe and Mail
Praise for Dressing up for the Carnival
“Not reading Shields is as much of a literary omission as overlooking Jane Austen.” National Post
Praise for Larry’s Party
“Shields has taken her place alongside such Canadian writers as Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.” The Globe and Mail
Praise for The Stone Diaries
“The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.” The New York Times Book Review
“An impeccable performance … one which will fill her readers with amazed gratitude.” Anita Brookner
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 become material 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...Unless. Copyright © by Carol Shields. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
- Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
- Date of Birth:
- June 2, 1935
- Date of Death:
- July 16, 2003
- Place of Birth:
- Oak Park, Illinois
- Place of Death:
- Toronto, Canada
- B.A., Hanover College, Indiana; M.A. (English), Ottawa University, 1975
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I loved this book. It is sad, yet so real. It touches the reader.
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.
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.
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.
Shields realistically represents the turmoil of grief. Please give this book a chance. Take your time and pay attention. It is worth it!!!
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.
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.
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!
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.