Unless (Shields)

Book Reviews 
Reta Winters — loving helpmeet to a doctor, mother of three cheerful daughters, and author of a successful comic novel — has always considered herself happy, even blessed. Then her eldest child, nineteen-year-old Norah, briefly disappears and resurfaces as a panhandling mute on a Toronto street corner, holding up a homemade placard that says "Goodness." Shields's ability to use Reta's darkest fears to reveal the order lurking in chaos, without ever losing her light touch (Laurie Colwin comes to mind), is nothing short of astonishing
New Yorker Magazine


Marvelously idiosyncratic, passionate and wise, Shields' tenth novel rollicks from beginning to end with sauciness and wit. The heroine is forty-four-year-old Reta Winters, who confesses her problems from the start: "It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now," she admits. The source of Reta's troubles is her firstborn, nineteen-year-old daughter, Norah, who recently dropped out of college and now spends her days on a Toronto street corner wearing a placard that reads "Goodness" around her neck. The reasons behind this erratic behavior are unclear. Reta obsessively wonders what went wrong while she attempts to write her second "comic" novel. The plot of Unless is secondary to its biting commentary, a fact that is destined to generate buzz among literary insiders but may leave readers looking for a traditional story less than enthralled. Plenty is said about the powerlessness of women, the absurdity of publishing and the denigration of our culture. The author laments the suppression of female writers by the male establishment, and she calls to task those who have elevated the lowest common denominator at the expense of originality, vision and talent. Shields never gets lost in the whorl of these discussions. Her feet are firmly planted, even as the pitiable. planet spins. —Beth Kephart
Book Magazine


"If I have any reputation at all it is for being an editor and scholar, and not for producing, to everyone's amazement, a fresh, bright, springtime piece of fiction," or so it was described in Publishers Weekly. That cheeky self-description sums up the protagonist of Shields's latest, the precocious, compassionate and feisty Reta Winters, an accomplished author who suddenly finds her literary success meaningless when the oldest of her three daughters, Norah, drops out of college to live on the streets of Toronto with a placard labeled "Goodness" hung around her neck. Shields takes an elliptical approach to Winters's dilemma, slowly exploring the possible reasons why a bright, attractive young woman would simply give up and drop out. As Shields makes her way through Winters's literary career, her marriage and the difficulties she and her daughter face in being taken seriously as women in the modern era, she employs an ingenious conceit by tracking Winters's emotions as she tries to write a sequel to her light romantic novel while helping a fellow writer, a Holocaust survivor, work on her memoirs. As Norah's plight deepens and the nature of her decision begins to surface, the romantic novel turns dark and serious, and Winters faces a rewrite when her long-time editor dies and his pedantic successor tries to introduce a sexist plot twist. 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 that constitutes yet another noteworthy addition to Shields's impressive body of work. FYI: As revealed in an April 14, 2002 profile in the New York Times Magazine, Shields, who has terminal breast cancer, believes this will be her last novel.
Publishers Weekly


Unlike The Stone Diaries or Larry's Party, with their sweeping chronology of their characters' lives, Shields's new novel transpires over a few dark months. In elegant prose, it examines a woman's emotional journey following her eldest daughter's lapse into either asceticism or psychosis. The narrator, Reta Winters, lives with her physician husband, Tom, and three teenage daughters in a lovely suburban Toronto home. She has intelligent women friends and intellectual fulfillment translating the works of her mentor, an elderly French feminist. On the side, Reta is the author of a well-received novel of "light" fiction. However, the family's lives are radically transformed when her oldest daughter, Norah, leaves college and takes up begging on a Toronto street corner, wearing a sign saying "Goodness." Reta connects this act with women's essential powerlessness, while Tom suspects it to be post-traumatic stress. This remarkably liberal family maintains contact with Norah but doesn't intervene. Meanwhile, Reta distracts herself from her inner disquisition on loss, family, and the role of women by mentally manipulating the characters in her novel-in-progress and dealing with her fussy New York editor, who turns up just as the family crisis resolves itself. Finely detailed, thoughtful, and sometimes even humorous, this book is highly recommended for all fiction collections. —Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA
Library Journal


From Pulitzer-winning Shields (The Stone Diaries, 1994, etc.), a tale about existential disarray that's spiked with feminist outrage and leavened with womanly wit. Until her daughter Norah begins living on the streets of Toronto in the spring of 2000, Reta Winters "thought tragedy was someone not liking my book." She and physician Tom Winters have been together for 22 years (although, mildly nonconformist children of the 1970s, they never married), and Reta has a modest literary reputation as author of a comic novel, My Thyme Is Up. Shortly after Norah leaves home, Reta starts a sequel, and we find her grieving and "at the same time plotting what Alicia will say to Roman" in Thyme in Bloom. Art sustains Reta, but its self-appointed interpreters infuriate her, and she writes letters to pundits who have ignored women's contributions to culture, an omission Reta gropingly feels has something to do with her daughter's turmoil. But because she's too suspicious of generalities to trust "the self-pitying harridan who has put down such words," she never mails them. Her first-person telling of all this, often quietly heartbreaking, is just as often bitingly humorous. Much of the fun comes at the expense of Reta's bombastic New York editor, who professes to find Big Issues in what Reta sees as light fiction but who proves able, in the story's most blistering development, to see Alicia as a stepping-stone to Roman's development. Typical of Shields's unerring pacing, this nasty revelation is followed by a crisis revealing why Norah became a street person. Reta's observations are so shrewd throughout, each detail so perfectly placed, that readers may not notice that the editor is the only other truly three-dimensional character. The philosophical questions don't emerge with the same brilliance as Shields's portrait of the writer or her modest claim for the importance of a female perspective on tragedy. Still, there's enough here to maintain her claim as one of our most gifted and probing novelists.
Kirkus Reviews

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