Unless (Shields)

Carol Shields, 2002
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060098896

“Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair.”

Reta Winters has many reasons to be happy: Her three almost grown daughters. Her twenty-year relationship with their father. Her work translating the larger-than-life French intellectual and feminist Danielle Westerman. Her modest success with a novel of her own, and the clamour of her American publisher for a sequel. Then in the spring of her forty-fourth year, all the quiet satisfactions of her well-lived life disappear in a moment: her eldest daughter Norah suddenly runs from the family and ends up mute and begging on a Toronto street corner, with a hand-lettered sign reading GOODNESS around her neck.

With the inconceivable loss of her daughter like a lump in her throat, Reta tackles the mystery of this message. What in this world has broken Norah, and what could bring her back to the provisional safety of home? Reta’s wit is the weapon she most often brandishes as she kicks against the pricks that have brought her daughter down: Carol Shields brings us Reta’s voice in all its poignancy, outrage and droll humour.

Piercing and sad, astute and evocative, full of tenderness and laughter, Unless will stand with The Stone Diaries in the canon of Carol Shields’s fiction. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 2, 1935
Where—Oak Park, Illinois, USA
Death—July 16, 2003
Where—Toronto, Canada
Education—B.A., Hanover College; M.A., Ottawa University
Awards—Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction for Larry’s Party,
  1998; Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries, 1995; National
  Book Critics Circle Award for The Stone Diaries, 1994

Carol Shields's characters are often on the road less traveled, and the trip is never boring. She has written about a folklorist, a poet, a maze designer, a translator, even other writers—appropriate professions in novels in which characters struggle to find their own paths in life.

Shields often focused on female characters, most notably in The Stone Diaries, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel documenting the birth, death, and everything in between of Daisy Goodwill. Goodwill's story is told over a century, in various voices, featuring Shields's wry humor and her ability to convey what she has called "the arc of human life."

But don't pigeonhole Shields as a "women's writer." "I have directed a fair amount of energy and rather a lot of rage into that particular corner [of the] problem of men and women, particularly men and women who write and how women's novels are perceived differently from men's," Shields said in a 2001 interview. In 1997's Larry's Party, she swapped genders, writing from the perspective of a male floral designer who discovers a passion for mazes.

Unafraid to experiment with genres, Shields wrote an epistolary novel (A Celibate Season, coauthored with Blanche Howard), a sort of "literary mystery" about the posthumous discovery of a murdered poet's genius (Swann), and short stories (collected in Dressing for the Carnival and other titles). Though she often covered serious topics, she rarely did so without humor. Her novel of mid-life romance, Republic of Love, was called by the New York Times a "touching, elegantly funny, luscious work of fiction," an assessment that could be applied to the bulk of her work.

Shields changed her viewpoint yet again for Unless, but the circumstance was a tragic one. The book, which resurrects the main character from Dressing Up for the Carnival's "A Scarf," was written during the author's battle with breast cancer. "I never want to sound at all mystical about writing,'' she said in a 2002 interview, ''but this book—it just came out." Though not touching on her own illness, Shields did what she had always done—took her own questions and lessons, then used them to produce a story that speaks its own truth.

Shields passed away on July 16, 2003; she was 68.

From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is what she said:

• When I was home sick as a child I used to take several volumes of the Encyclopedia to bed with me. We had a World Book Encyclopedia, which had quite a few pictures in color. I read the volumes randomly, browsing my way through them. I loved the hugeness of the world they confirmed for me, and the notion that that vastness could be organized and identified. You might think I would be humbled by the fact that people—individual intelligences—could become familiar with arcane material, but, in fact, I was deeply encouraged.

Here is Shields on were her favorite books (a fascinating list):

Emma by Jane Austen. This book was written at the height of Austen's powers, when she felt secure in her footing.

The Enigma of Arrival by V. S. Naipaul. The subject is so complex and the approach so original, that I didn't think he'd make it to the end, but he did.

• The Rabbit novels by John Updike. You might think of this as the four books it is, or you might see it as one long novel of the life of an American male in the middle of the 20th century. It is a great accomplishment, this emotional documentation of a human life and the other lives that accompany him.

Independent People by Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Prize winner. This novel has an epic range, looking at the world sometimes through a giant telescope, then concentrating with a magnifying lens on the rambling thoughts of one particular child.

• I love all the books by Alice Munro, who has given the world new ways of looking at the lives of women. She has, in fact, reinvented the shape of the short story.

Possession by A. S. Byatt captures what many novels leave out: the life of the mind and the excitement of intellectual reflection.

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. This book, published in the last year, is about family, about the delicacy and strength that weaves the family into a web.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond made me believe (for about ten minutes) that I understood how the world was made. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

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

Discussion Questions
1. Many definitions for goodness are raised in the novel. Do you think that Reta ever comes to a conclusion about what goodness is? If not, do you think she has realized anything about the nature of goodness?

2. What do you think Norah means when she talks to her mother about not being able to love anyone enough because she loves the world more? Do you think that Reta understands what Norah is saying?

3. How would you characterize Norah's relationship with her mother? How do you feel about Tom and Reta's response to Norah's leaving? Would you describe them as 'good' parents?

4. Why do you think Norah decides to abandon her life and stand on a street corner? What do you think that "goodness" means to her? Does it matter that we never learn why the woman on the Toronto street corner set herself on fire?

5. Why do you think Reta spends so much time thinking about Mrs. McGinn and the envelope she found behind the radiator, even after she realizes that it's just a baby shower invitation? How much of what we know about Norah comes from Reta's imagination?

6. Why do you think it's so important for Reta to buy the perfect scarf for Norah? Do you think the scarf matters?

Men and women:
7. Do you think there's any significance to the fact that Tom and Reta aren't married?

8. Consider the scene when Reta has the theory of relativity explained to her by Colin Glass. Do you think that Reta understands what Colin is saying? How would you describe the nature of Reta's tone in this exchange?

9. Compare Reta and Danielle Westerman. Name the attributes you do and don't admirein each of them.

10. How serious do you think Reta is about her work? What do you think about the fact that she writes (but does not send) various letters about woman writers not being taken seriously?

11. What's the impact of Reta Winters being introduced through a list of her literary achievements?

Writers writing about writers writing about writers:

12. Are there ever times when you feel like Carol Shields is narrating the book? If so, can you identify particular moments when this happens? Do you consider this mixed narrative style effective? Why or why not?

13. Do you have any ideas about why Lois is silent for most of the novel? What do you think about the fact that she basically tells her entire life to Arthur Springer?

14. The novel's epigraph reads: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels heartbeat and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of that silence". What do you think of this quote? Do you think it's an appropriate introduction to the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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