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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 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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on 10 December 2007
Unless by Carol Shields has been my third novel in a row written from the perspective of a self-analytical, self-critical and perhaps self-obsessed female narrator, the other being by Margaret Drabble and Anne Enright. Maybe Carol Shields drew the short straw, because I felt that Reta, the writer-narrator of Unless, internalised everything, so much so, in fact, that the other characters in the book became no more than projections of themselves within her. Maybe that was part of the point.

Ostensibly about a family of ordinary people, Unless portrays Reta Winters, her partner Tom and their three daughters. They live an hour from Toronto in a home that sounds as big as a village. Reta can't decide how many rooms there are, or even what might constitute a room. Tom's a medic and Reta is a published author of moderate success. Not, at least for me, run-of-the-mill ordinary folk.

The eldest daughter, Norah, a nineteen year old determined to make her own marks, has recently left home to live with a boyfriend. She has dropped out of college and then she suddenly took to sleeping rough, occasionally in a hostel for the homeless, whilst, during the day sitting on a street corner behind a sign saying, "Goodness". Reta can't rationalise her daughter's apparent rejection of everything she was supposed to be and begins to delve into her own psyche for clues. It affects her work, her family life and her relationships, all of which must, of course, go on.

Throughout, the narrative is both clear and crisp. Reta's character is credible, if a little prone to a lack of self-awareness, despite the fact that she seems to have majored in the topic to the extent that her self-preoccupation verges on the obsessive. Her writing progresses, but for me unconvincingly. A light read, something twixt romance and general fiction, is what she is looking for. Quite why the main character needs to be an Albanian trombonist (good at sex, apparently, because of the regular arm-pumping) only Carol Shields knows. There were comic opportunities that were never taken and, equally, possibilities for parallel lives that were never exploited. Personally, I found the scenario of the novel within the novel, as explained by Reta, herself, the writer, offered neither comic relief nor insight. When Reta's new editor demands that the light fiction be transformed into the literary by means of, amongst other things, redrawing the last chapter to introduce surprise and enigma, undertones, unexpected depth, we are led directly into the unexpected discovery of the reason behind the unexplained behaviour of Reta's daughter, the events that prompted her drop-out into apparent depression. It ought to have been a poignant moment, but for me it all became a bit pedestrian.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, by the way. My criticisms are technical at best and petty at worst, but I fell I have to record them. Perhaps it was attempting three psyche-analysing, internally-bound first persons on the trot that got to me. Perhaps I too got lost inside myself as I read. Carol Shields's "I" was a darned sight more balanced and self-sufficient than either Drabble's or Enright's. Perhaps if Reta had made a bit more fuss I would have found her more credible. But that, undoubtedly, was her strength.
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on 7 October 2003
Having heard great things about Carol Shields, I was terribly disappointed by this novel. Despite some beautiful imagery I found the lead character appallingly smug and self-satisified, harping on about the lot of women using arguements that had validity twenty years ago, but not necessarily now.
The premise is an interesting one but I didn't feel it was done justice to during the novel. The exploration of what goodness means was fairly shallow and didn't really go beyond observations about the way women are treated. All in all, a wasted opportunity.
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on 15 October 2002
In historical fiction, certain true facts and connotations are necessary. But in contemporary fiction like this, constant referrals to the Booker, and the US presidential race are disconcertingly out of place, and overwhelmingly political. The fundamental question of the book, "What is Goodness?", is lost in a sea of politics and feminism. These uninteresting and fairly shallow musings end up dominating the book and surpassing the value of what could have been a meditative treatise.
She also falls into the trap of being a woman writing about a woman writing about a woman writing, and even makes fun of herself in the book in a twist of self-referentialism that isn't nearly as ironic as she thinks it is.
She commits also, the very sexism she decries by having only two male characters, one curiously almost absent, and the other a completely shallow, self centered, loathsome and despicable caricature of 'unconsious misogyny'.
That all said, her prose is elegant and satisfying. The book is not terrible, but it is more a fictive essay than a fiction.
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on 16 July 2016
A book every writer should read, it causes us to reflect on the writing process and the questions we should be asking about life, about what is going on around us. The book may come across as tedious at the outset. The protagonist, who is a writer, leads a hum drum life, but Shields reveals several unexpected layers to the story. A couple of 'gasp-style' surprises come towards the end. As always, there is humour, showing us that our protagonist is fully aware of the banality of some aspects of her life. Especially wonderful is the characterization of her new 'book editor.' If this hasn't already been made into a movie, then it should be. An easy, warming and insightful read.
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on 21 December 2012
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 perversely determined to find something to rail against the world about and for me hers wasn't a convincing feminist rant. Find yourself a real problem Reta! None of the characters in the book took on any real life, or were particularly interesting or likeable, and I had a constant itch throughout the book to hurry along to the good bit, which turned out to be absent from my copy. Some good imagery, but it got lost in endless passages of tedious description about inane subjects, including Reta's tritely titled Thyme novels and her feelings towards her stereotyped and charmless characters, whom she spent more time thinking about than her traumatised daughter. The unveiling of what happened to Norah was a sad anticlimax and lacking any meaningful context. Or maybe I just didn't get it.
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on 19 February 2018
Self-referential, moi?
And, as a fairly unreconstructed man, I could have done with a bit less of the musing about the powerlessness of women and wished she would get on with the story. My totally reconstructed wife felt the same.
The first 3/4 of the book is worth four stars because of the mastery that she brings her chosen approach. After that it falls to pieces. She reverts, for the first time, to third person narrative to disentangle a sub-plot, and the denouement of the main plot is thoroughly contrived.
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on 20 January 2013
Satisfying - yes, that was the word that came to mind after finishing Unless. Not enjoyable, exciting, profound, intentful (whatever that means), but satisfying. The narrative arc takes you on the writer's journey and the sidesteps into social commentary are entertaining, amusing, maybe even intentful. BUT, and for me it was a big BUT, I was not convince this was Reta Winters' story or voice. The language is too artful, considered, but in a worthy and literary way, not in the spontaneous voice of a writer of light fiction as she purports to be. The combined role of heady poetic translator and light fiction author sit uncomfortably alongside one another and for me do not convince as a narrative voice. This seems like Carol Shields simply employing a character to narrate, so why not have in the third person throughout. The heavy-handed feminist concerns were unhelpful either to the character or the story and frankly seems too simplistic and rather ridiculous (but maybe that's because I am not a woman). At the close everything is wrapped up neatly but you feel as though the story is over and I had not anticipated that - I wanted some uncertainty at the end. After all the title is "unless"...
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