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UnlessReview - Unless
A Novel
by Carol Shields
HarperAudio, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Aug 25th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 34)

Unless is a novel about a Canadian woman, a writer and a mother, by the Canadian writer and mother Carol Shields.  The novel is narrated by Reta Winters, who lives with her family about an hour north of Toronto.  Reta reflects on her life and family, her writing, the plight of women writers, and language.  The novel is held together by the main plot line, that Reta's eldest daughter Nora has dropped out of Toronto University, and has become a street person, sitting all day saying nothing, with a sign she has made herself hanging around her neck, with one word written on it: GOODNESS.  The whole family worries about her, wonders why she has made this choice, and why she will not even talk to them. 

Reta has written short stories, a novel, and has translated many of the works from the French of Danielle Westerman, an important woman thinker.  Reta, who is in her mid forties, grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and has been strongly influenced by the revolutionary spirit of 1968, protest movements, and feminist thought.  Yet she lives a rather conventional bourgeois life, with her physician husband Tom and her three lively daughters.  She and Tom never got married, because they did not like the idea of conforming to convention, but they have lived in a monogamous relationship for decades and the lack of a marriage certificate makes no difference, especially since she even changed her last name to his.  She often talks with Westerman, who has led a more austerely unconventional life, and Reta often compares herself with Westerman, but she does not want to live that sort of life.  Reta's first novel was a comic romance, and was favorably reviewed in major newspapers.  There is another volume of Westerman's memoirs waiting to be translated, but Reta is more motivated to write a sequel to her novel.  Reta says that the Nora's choice has made her deeply unhappy, and she is experiencing a terrible loss, but this does not reflect much in her stream of consciousness. 

Reta spends a lot of time thinking about the way that women writers are treated, and why they are categorized as "women writers" rather than just writers.  She composes letters in her head to other writers about how their sexist assumptions trouble her -- why their lists of great writers are all men, why their examples explaining their ideas feature only men, or why their praise for women is always qualified -- "good for a woman."  She devotes a lot of time to thinking about her new novel and how to write it: she wants to include many details about her main character's friendships and family relations, including a little about her parents.  She wants to give the woman's perspective, and wants her character to break off her engagement to her trombone-playing fiancé. 

The novel leaves its reader to wonder how much distance there is between its writer and its main character.  Obviously they are not the same person, but it is obvious that Shields is using Reta to convey many of her own reactions and thoughts.  Shields devotes plenty of time in this novel to Reta's friendships and family relations, including a little about Tom's mother, who lives next door.  Reta becomes interested in the idea of goodness, and her editor says that her novel is about goodness.  Shields says in an answer to a question at the end of the audiobook that in Unless, she wanted to examine the idea of goodness. 

Shields writes well, and Joan Allen's reading in the unabridged audiobook is compelling.  She sets out her concerns well, and her rather pointed criticisms of the sexism in the world of literature are eloquently argued.  However, as a novel about the reactions of a family to a daughter seeming to drop out of ordinary life, the book lacks conviction.  Nora may be starting a major mental illness, and may risking her life, but Reta focuses on writing her new book.  Despite her proclamation that she is not in favor of introspection, Reta seems self-obsessed, since she writes mainly about herself and those connected with her.  That is a characteristic of almost any first person narrative of book length -- narcissistic tendencies are probably necessary for anyone who is prepared to write hundreds of pages about their own lives or opinions -- but there's something jarring about Reta.  It is hard to put one's finger on exactly what makes one want to find fault with her, and her feminist concerns raise the possibility that it is motivated by sexist assumptions.  How can the male protagonists of the novels of Richard Ford or Richard Russo, for instance, be so engaging, while Shields' narrator makes one want to take issue with her?  Setting aside the possibility that this is simply because of the reviewer's sexism as a conclusion I don't care for, another possible source of the difference is that those male protagonists are so fundamentally flawed and struggling, while Reta is earnest and a little self-righteous. 

Nevertheless, Unless is a book that is worth reading because it provokes the reader to think and argue.  It serves as a representative of various labels such as feminist, Canadian, literary, and Reta is proud to claim those labels for herself.  But the book has enough complexity to it for readers to avoid being reduced to those labels.  The book has many flaws, even on its own terms.  Most of the characters apart from Reta and Tom are sketched rather thinly, and the book editor who makes an appearance near the end of the novel has a cartoonish feel to him, since he has so many foolish and pompous things to say.  By the end, Nora's bizarre behavior is explained, but the explanation is rather swift and unrevealing.  Indeed, the whole theme of goodness, which is supposed to be central to the novel, is not really examined in any depth.  However, despite these flaws, there is plenty in Shields' novel to reflect on; it invites comparison with other serious and stimulating novels.

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

 

 


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