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Unless [Paperback]

Carol Shields
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
RRP: 8.99
Price: 8.31 & FREE Delivery in the UK on orders over 10. Details
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Book Description

3 Mar 2003

Dazzling novel from Carol Shields, author of ‘The Stone Diaries’, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and ‘Larry’s Party’, winner of the Orange Prize.

‘Breathtaking…a masterpiece.’ Geoffrey Wansell, Daily Mail

Reta Winters has a loving family, good friends, and growing success as a writer of light fiction. Then her eldest daughter suddenly withdraws from the world, abandoning university to sit on a street corner, wearing a sign that reads only ‘Goodness’. As Reta seeks the causes of her daughter’s retreat, her enquiry turns into an unflinching, often very funny meditation on society and where we find meaning and hope. ‘Unless’ is a dazzling and daring novel from the undisputed master of extraordinary fictions about so-called ‘ordinary’ lives.

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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: 12.8 x 18.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 112,246 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 the Hardcover edition.


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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inert inaction in Carol Shield's Unless 21 April 2004
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
4.0 out of 5 stars A novel that is both feminine and feminist. 10 Nov 2002
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 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking 20 Aug 2002
By A Customer
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning. It has to make the Booker shortlist. 10 Jun 2002
By A Customer
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars I just could not get into this book and yet it came so highly...
It's just doesnt grab you when you start reading it. I will try though incase it's just a slow starter
Published 4 months ago by Michelle Rothwell
5.0 out of 5 stars Unless - Carol Shields
This just tips ahead of Larry's Party as my favourite Shields novel. A wonderful, angry, controlled, subtle piece of fiction. Read more
Published 6 months ago by RachelWalker
2.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't finish it
I am also an avid reader, but I really struggled with this. It was beautifully written but I could find any empathy for the main character who seemed to be entirely self absorbed... Read more
Published 17 months ago by A. Julian
4.0 out of 5 stars A satisfying read
Satisfying - yes, that was the word that came to mind after finishing Unless. Not enjoyable, exciting, profound, intentful (whatever that means), but satisfying. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Dillon the Villain
2.0 out of 5 stars Vapid and annoying - or is it just me?
If there's a point to this book I didn't get it. For someone so blessed with a beautiful home, affluent lifestyle, fulfilling career and loving family, Reta Winters seems... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Ms. Alison J. Wilson
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as it's cracked up to be
My son was raving about this- so I bought it. It's quite good I suppose, the storyline is interesting and the way the family tries to understood and cope with their daughters... Read more
Published on 12 May 2012 by Carole Grace
2.0 out of 5 stars Could be worse...
Perhaps I'm too ignorant and/or possessing a cold heart of stone, but I struggled throughout Unless to tolerate the narrator's unswerving melancholy. Read more
Published on 11 Jun 2011 by Irwin Winterchest
5.0 out of 5 stars Another good book
I knew this was going to be good even before I read it - Carol Shields has been a favourite author for a long time and I would urge anyone to try any of her books. Read more
Published on 26 July 2010 by Jack Frost
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving
This ia a brilliant book about gender and fame. The main character is a successful writer whose daughter has chosen to live on the streets. Read more
Published on 10 Feb 2010 by Moonlit
5.0 out of 5 stars A perfectly formed jewel
I recently re-read this novel after first reading it some five years ago. The first time around I was bowled over by its directness, its simplicity and the immense "event" behind... Read more
Published on 8 April 2009 by Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells
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