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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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on 20 August 2002
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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on 10 June 2002
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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on 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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VINE VOICEon 25 July 2003
I liked Unless. It’s a slim, poised book with a genuinely forceful and urgently inquisitive undertone. How do women survive? That is the question it asks. Danielle Westermann (sounds like lesser man), the renowned French holocaust survivor, provides a framing presence, both thematically and in the daily life of Kate, our author-star. How did she survive? How does any woman survive in this male world if she is structured as a lesser man? How, indeed, does a mother keep a family going in the sort of modern world that expects her to work too. It can’t be done. Unless. Unless it can be done. Unless women do survive.
This is a book populated by women. Kate is a writer of some repute, having written a novel that exceeded her expectations in terms of sales, though perhaps not the literary triumph she would have hoped for. The books she writes are about women. She spends time with her close female friends, her inspiration is Danielle Westermann and, ultimately, her life becomes overwrought by the impact of her daughter’s decision: to drop out of college, and sit mute on a street corner with a sign around her neck that reads “Goodness”.
Unless reminds me both of Philip Roth’s excellent American Pastoral, at least to the extent that Kate’s daughter is reminiscent of Merry Levov in that book (who drops out of her pre-destined all American life to become a Jain), and it also covers similar ground to Nick Hornby’s interesting, though flawed, How To Be Good. But here, Shields is more concerned with asking what women bring to relationships. What good they do so often that goes so unremarked. Throughout the novel, women are a source of sacrifice, nurture, kindness, help and resolution. That is not to say that this is an anti-men book at all. Just that, after posing the question about how women get by in this world, the answer comes resplendent with nuance. There is so much to say, that there just isn’t room for the men.
And Unless too if full of nuance. It is an engaging, deceptively simple story, that poses some valuable thoughts that deserve to be discussed. It is sad that Carol Shields should have died before writing another book. I have only read this one by her, but from the feel of it, she had a great stock of valuable things to say, and she would have gone on to say many more of them just as eloquently as she has here.
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on 19 October 2003
Having had this novel recommended to me, and then finding out about the nominations it had for various prizes, I couldn't have been much more optimistic about a book. And I'm fairly pessimistic kind of person by default. But if any novel could destroy one's faith in the people who compile shortlists for prizes, this must surely be the one.
The content is there, it's just that Shields doesn't seem to have any idea of what to do with it. The narrative flows along, quite aimlessly at times, drifting through moods, banal anecdotes about some pitifully flat characters and the incessant and downright self-indulgent accounts of the writing process. I was intrigued by the central "problem" of Reta's daughter living on the streets, but after a hundred pages of learning about Reta and not having any sympathy for her whatsoever, I was begging to have the story told from the daughter's perspective.
The key fault seems to be that the novel goes on, and on, but never can agree on what it wants to go on about. Is this about writing? Perhaps. Is it a loosely disguisely feminist rant? Could well be. Is there a message about "goodness" somewhere inside? Probably, although you might have trouble finding it. Will I read anything else from this author? I don't think so.
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VINE VOICEon 17 July 2004
I can't help feeling that many of the reviewers have missed the entire point of 'Unless', and in doing so have inadvertently proved it. This is a novel by a woman writer, about the life of a woman, Reta Winters, troubled by where the female life and voice is able to find a platform in a political climate and a literary canon which is predicated on masculine interpretations of the world. While it is husband Tom's belief that their eldest daughter Norah drops out to sit on a street corner because of psychological trauma, Reta sees Norah's behaviour as a response to the realisation that, as a young woman, she is effectively excluded from having her voice taken seriously. This theme is explored in Rita's conversations with her friends, her work with the important French feminist Danielle Westerman, and her interactions with her publisher. It seems some reviewers find themselves uninterested in, or unsympathetic to, 'neurotic' Reta; but then, as one of the characters points out, 'men aren't interested in women's lives'.
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on 21 April 2015
Unless is the story of a middle aged author and translator, Reta Winters, whose eldest daughter, Norah, has taken to the streets, sitting at the corner of a crossroads in Toronto, holding a sign saying “Goodness”. The story follows Reta as she maintains her normal life, worries about her child and juggles the quotidian demands that we all face.

Carol Shields is a consummate writer. Her prose is elegant and attractive. However, it has to be said that Unless comes across as self-indulgent; an attempt to explore the issue of gender that fails to deliver. The plot is not a strong one and the resolution is also weak. There are some good structural ideas; for instance letters drafted in our minds that we will never pen; the attempt to draw parallels with the protagonist’s own writing. However, although the ideas are good, the execution is a little anaemic.

In the end we are left with an observational study that is not that compelling.
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on 24 February 2004
This book had me transfixed. I was fascinated by her daughter's character and the mother's musings on humanity and the place of women in today's society. Shield's effortless use of language is so pleasurable to read and so moving. It took me into some of the deeper levels of what it is to be alive and to think - a great piece of work. By the way, it is interesting to me that most of the less favourable reviews of this book seem to come from male readers and I am just wondering if they just can't quite tap into the beauty of it - pity for them!
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on 14 August 2005
This is the first book of Shields' that I've read and her writing style is alluring enough to make me read another, though I found this one flat and unappealing. It's hard to connect with any of the characters--the daughter Norah seems more like a construct than a person, the husband is sweetly vacant and dull, the protagonists' friends speak, not a one of them, like real people.
Most troubling to me was the book the narrator is writing and which she discusses at length. Both these "Thyme" books are horrendous--perhaps Shields was making a sort of in joke about the self-described feminist writing bad chick lit when she's not translating the hyperintellectual Daniele. (And then being lauded what sounds like pap.) None of it rings true.
It's also interesting that the author didn't deal at all with the narrator's meekness vs. anger. Her letters--one of the best parts of the book--are spiky and amusing. But her abjectness in the face of her overbearing editor is puzzling.
Perhaps most puzzling of all is that none of the four coffee shop friends remembered the important incident of the Muslim woman. Surely, someone injured who disppeared would be big news? All in all, good writing put to little use.
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