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Unless Paperback – 3 Mar 2003


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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; New Ed edition (3 Mar. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007137699
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007137695
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 275,836 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Amazon Review

Unless offers us engrossing proof--if ever we needed it--that Carol Shields is a writer of incomparable creative agility, wit and tenderness. In her eight novels (including Orange Prize-winner Larry's Party and two short-story collections she has continued to combine an extraordinary inventiveness with prose of suppleness and grace. Her terrain is the domestic and her thematic ambitions are delivered with a beguiling lightness of touch that never undercuts a depth and seriousness of intent--the perfect velvet glove over the iron fist.

Towards the end of Unless its central character, fortysomething Reta Winters--wife, mother, editor, translator and recent novelist--takes issue with how an eminent critic has belatedly bestowed status on her first novel, My Thyme is Up. What had been judged until then as her "fresh, bright springtime piece of fiction" has become... 'a brilliant tour de force', says Professor Casey, and this quote will, of course, appear on the jacket of the sequel...in the same size type as the name Reta Winters, but I am trying not to think what that means." This is just one of countless delicious asides (yet none of Shields' asides are ever throwaway) which Reta makes in her light, self-mocking tone; indeed, she sees herself as a woman for whom "tragedy was someone not liking my book".

But into her happy family comes a situation which overshadows all else: the eldest of Reta's three daughters becomes a bag lady on a Toronto street corner, obsessed by goodness, but refusing to speak or be spoken to. This threnody of loss and grief, and Reta's consequent self-questioning, is at the heart of the narrative. Running alongside are chapters taking up Reta's other selves, each narrated in a very different register: Reta as the translator of French feminist texts; Reta as purposeful, and increasingly driven letter writer on the subject of women's exclusion; the frayed author trying to complete her sequel, Thyme in Bloom, in the face of harassment by an editor of woefully dumb and obdurate incomprehension. This woman of many parts allows Shields to reflect--wittily, thoughtfully, playfully, and with wicked subversiveness--on issues of power, on the nature of goodness, the meaning of family, and the place of women. Crucially, she asks how--or even whether--women's voices are heard and "read", how they are (re)interpreted, and given value in the culture. It is these brave and still necessary, if no longer "fashionable", questions, and Carol Shields' enormous capacity to entertain so wisely and unflinchingly, that make Unless such a joy to read.--Ruth Petrie --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

Praise for Carol Shields:

‘Her perceptions are so quick, her style is so acute, that she can tack a breath to the page and skewer a thought on the wing. It is her speciality to isolate moments that remain distinct in the mind for years, perhaps for a lifetime.’ Hilary Mantel, Sunday Times

‘Few writers could make a book about what it means to be alone this charming.’ Observer

‘A wonderful, powerful book, written in a style which combines simplicity and elegance. Deeply moving.’ Joanne Harris

‘Shields writes like an angel, awesome in the intelligence of her observations and never less than elegant in expressing them.’ David Robson, Sunday Telegraph

‘It takes the vessel of fiction in its hands and hurls it to the floor…a masterpiece.’ Rachel Cusk, New Statesman

‘As poised and wise a novel as any you will read this year.’ Tim Adams, Observer

‘Our most intelligent and beguiling observer…”Unless” is her most raw and intentful novel yet.’ Penny Perrick, Sunday Times

‘Her wisdom and generosity of spirit are visible at every turn.’ Sunday Times


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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By "elisa_lodato" on 21 April 2004
Format: Paperback
Written in the first person, Unless is an account of one woman's shatteredhappiness as she struggles to understand her 19 year old daughter'sdecision to abjure society and sit on a pavement in Toronto begging formoney she gives to charity and hanging the word GOODNESS around her neckby way of an explanation. The book opens with a stark declaration ofgrief that is melodramatic and overstated once we consider that Reta isgrieving for a daughter who hasn't died and overwhelmed by an absence thatisn't complete. As the novel proceeds however, Shields slowly unravelsReta's pain in a series of letters she composes to authors and biographerswho have omitted the contributions of female writers to the intellectualworld.
Unless is the story of one woman's attempt to see theworld through her daughter's inert gaze, and to fight those intellectualbattles that have left her so slumped. The effect is both comical andtouching as Reta Winters - a well known author herself - writes herletters with the simplicity of a consumer whose kettle has broken down onthe first day of purchase to recently-published men who prefer not toconsider how women have also helped shape modern ideas and intellectualdiscourse. Politely stamping her feet while quietly missing her daughter,Reta wants to change the world - if only because it might bring herdaughter home.
Beautifully written and full of the kind of honestdetail that makes you stop and look out of the window, Unless is anedifying read and highly recommended.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 10 Nov. 2002
Format: Hardcover
A mother's agonized attempt to help to her 19-year-old daughter Norah, a drop-out who now begs on a street corner while wearing a sign saying "Goodness" around her neck, provides the framework for Shields's thoughtful and sensitive look at women's roles and the juggling acts they sometimes require. Reta Winters, a successful writer, believes at first that by writing a bright, perky novel about "lost children and goodness and going home," she will be "remaking the untenable world through the nib of a pen." But real life--and Shields's real novel--are, of course, much more complex than that.
Despite the support of her two younger and very caring daughters, her empathetic husband, her friends, and Danielle Westerman, the French feminist whose books she has translated, Kate nevertheless discovers that trying to help a child who will not be helped is a terrible loneliness to bear: "I need to know I'm not alone in what I apprehend, this awful incompleteness that has been alive inside me all this time." Evaluating her life as a wife, writer, friend, mother, and, increasingly, feminist, Reta allows us to share her inner life, both as it is revealed in her writing and as she wrestles with Norah's "hibernation" on the street corner.
Filled with dazzling images (an idea that has "popped out of the ground like the rounded snout of a crocus on a cold lawn" ; women who have been "sent over to the side pocket of the snooker table and made to disappear"), this Shields novel is more meditative than many of her other novels. "I've been trying to focus my thoughts on the immensity, rather than the particular," Reta/Shields says. As she inspires the reader to share this immensity, she provides insights into the essence of who we are and who be might become. Mary Whipple
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 20 Aug. 2002
Format: Hardcover
In recent years, with so many weak novels being so over-hyped, and so few really good novels being published at all, I sometimes feel I can no longer find any points of reference for what constitutes "good writing". This novel, Unless, reminds me what a joy it is to read a wonderfully-written and -constructed novel. It has a deceptively simple style, engaging characters and quite a gripping story, making you want to read on, eager to find out what happens next. But then you're disappointed that in your rush you didn't take time to enjoy the details.
It is packed with insights and reflections, some carried through as themes in the novel. Some are profound, some are disturbing (for example, the theme of the continuing lack of influence of women in the world in general and the intellectual world in particular). Some are just fun thoughts (for example, the idea that the only reason people read novels is to get a break from the incessant monologues in their own heads). And yet you never feel you are leaving the territory of the novel to enter the pop-psychology, self-help mode that such domestic novels can sometimes fall into. It is serious, without taking itself too seriously.
The story of this novel is kind of unimportant (albeit deeply moving). It's the mood, the language, the ideas and the insights that carry you along and make you want to turn back and re-read it the moment you finish the last page. If you enjoy good writing, read it.
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39 of 44 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 10 Jun. 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Like all the very best novels, this one is deceptively simple. Reta Winters is a forty-something mother of three, living what on the surface is a comfortable, settled life. She has a loving partner -it wasn't fashionable to marry in the 1970s - three clever daughters and a dog. She has published a light, but popular novel and translates the work of a distinguished French feminist. She meets her friends for coffee. Her mother in law comes round for supper every evening. But slowly and subtly, Carol Shields unravels her life and shows a complex mix of emotions under the surface. Her eldest daughter has given up her studies and is begging on a Toronto street corner. 'It's just a phase,' she is re-assured. But Reta is not re-assured and this situation colours everything she does even writing a frothy sequel to her novel and composing hilarious letters of complaint to pretentious authors. Brilliantly and sharply written, Reta comes to life before your eyes. She is typical of the middle-aged woman today, especially the sharp and witty way she observes the world. She may be miserable but she makes us smile - not at her but at the crazy world we live in, especially the literary world. (perhaps the Booker judges won't find this funny at all.)This novel made me rail against the way women like Reta are generally viewed but it also made me laugh out loud. Rita is full of self-deprecation and veiled scorn. Delicious. All Carol Shields' novels and short stories are brilliant, but none more so than 'Unless.'
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