Unless by Carol Shields

In our Off-Canada Reads series at the office, Unless by Carol Shields rolled my way a few weeks ago. Some of my colleagues have already read Unless and have chosen not to re-read it. As I started to read it, I quickly understood why...

Our main character is 44-year-old Reta Winters who lives in a rural Ontario town, an hour's drive from Toronto. She is married to the town doctor and is the mother of three grown daughters. An accomplished literary translator, Reta has also written a book of light fiction and is writing its sequel. Then for reasons that we only discover at the end of the book, Norah, Reta's oldest daughter, drops out of university and starts begging on a street corner in downtown Toronto, wearing a sign with "goodness" written on it.

Norah is never far from her mother's thoughts, and Reta repeatedly blames her own shortcomings for what has happened to her daughter. Sensible Reta, various family members and friends visit Norah on the street but never force her to come home for fear they will only exacerbate the crisis.

Reta goes through the motions of her life: cleaning her farmhouse, writing her sequel, visiting friends and finishing a book tour. We discover that Reta harbours a certain resentment towards male privilege, and her daughter's sudden odd behaviour only turns this resentment into rage--rage that never seems to surface until her editor, Mr. Springer, wants to subject her sequel to substantial revision, which includes switching the point of view from the woman in her story to that of the male protagonist, giving Reta a nom de plume so that her gender is unclear and changing her book from light fiction to great fiction.

An underlying theme in this book is goodness versus greatness. Reta could be a great novelist, but she consciously chooses the safety of goodness. In fact, Unless was difficult for me to read because I found myself wanting to throttle Reta on more than one occasion. She claims that she was part of the women's liberation movement with Helen Redy singing "I am woman," yet the only bit of feminism she seems to have retained was choosing to work outside her housekeeping and mothering duties. Reta simply tows the line, and as the reader sees, her resentment slowly builds.

Whether I loathed Reta or not, Shields did achieve greatness with this book. I finished it two weeks ago, and I still find myself going over different parts. Although the main protagonist was annoying, Reta was a realistic character. Her reticence to take risks or assume the rights her generation had fought to attain is emblematic of an entire generation of women who were and are still afraid to assert themselves.

Unless succeeded in pushing my buttons and giving me plenty of food for thought. And it made me wonder...was Shields goading women into standing up for themselves? Or was she fed up with women writers being refused entry into exclusively male literary circles?

Other reviews and related post:
Reads from Men
AYA: the Secrets Come Out
The Curious Case of the Communist Jell-O Box (zine)
Paul Goes Fishing by Michel Rabagliati
Some Thoughts on Canada Reads
Expozine's Broken Pencil
Make Me A Woman by Vanessa Davis
Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges
Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle


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