Unless: A Novel

Unless, Carol Shields
Random House, 2002
Hardcover, 321 pgs
Spring Reading Thing Challenge

If you're looking for a fast paced read with lots of sex, violence and car chases, go read something else. You're not going to find it in Carol Shields novel Unless. Unless is a slow thoughtful tale of a woman's inner musings after her daughter decides to live on the streets of Toronto.

Reta is the mother of three teen aged daughters. She is in a happy long term relationship with their father. She has a satisfying career as a translator for a French author of feminist books. She even has moderate success as a writer herself, but it all seems unimportant when her daughter Norah starts living on the street. Norah isn't a drug addict or mentally ill; she's just decided to check out of her life and sit on the corner of Bloor and Bathurst with a sign that reads "Goodness."

Like everyone else, Reta is perplexed by her daughter's behaviour. She questions her own definition of happiness and wonders about the lives of the people around her. She fixates on her mentor Danielle Westerman's childhood and the life of Mrs McGinn, the woman who once lived in her home fifty years before she did. She continues to live her day to day life, but Norah is never out of her thoughts.

In the end Norah's reasons are revealed and Reta realizes that we can't know the answers "unless we ask questions."

I wasn't sure when I started Unless if I was going to like it. It's a slowly told tale and I wondered if it was going anywhere, but Shields's writing is like a comfortable, warm blanket. It surrounds you and you feel at home. The most simple sentences are filled with meaning.

I wondered about the titles of the chapters: Not Yet, Hence, Therefore, etc. They seemed to me like unfinished thoughts. There is an explanation of sorts at the end:

"A life is full of isolated events, but these events, if they are to form a coherent narrative, require odd pieces of language to cement them together, little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define, since they are abstractions of location or relative position, words like therefore, else, other, also..."

Feminism is a major theme. Reta has a career as a second banana to Danielle who looks upon her novel My Thyme is Up as frivolous fiction. Reta wears her hair in the same style as her mentor. It's hardly a sign of her own independence. She's not married to the father of her children because he didn't want to get married, even though they live the life of married people. It seems as though Reta is on the fence.

Language and the writing life is a theme as well. Reta plots her next novel and tries to appease her new editor. A typo in an e-mail changes the meaning of the sender's message. Reta is always trying to find just the right word in English to translate into Danielle's books. Words are Reta's life.

It wasn't a rocket ride but I read it quite quickly. Reta is easy to relate to and I enjoyed being in her head. It's not an overly sad novel and I think the ending came to a satisfying conclusion. This was Shields's last novel, as she died in 2003. That's such a shame. She's a writer who will be missed.



  1. Have you read Swann? It's my favorite novel by Shields - I never read this one, but now I shall!

  2. I just ordered this from B&N for $1.80. I love a bargain;-) I really liked The Stone Diaries. I'll let you know how I like this one.

  3. I just finished this one and saw a link to your blog on the librarything review page.

    I enjoyed it too. I thought it was written beautifully.

  4. Hey, I think I have this book, buried somewhere in TBR mountain. It sounds good!

  5. My wife and I disagreed on this one. She found it a little too slow for her tastes, but I thought it was a pleasant enough read (despite the tragedy). I know Stone Diaries got her all the recognition, but I think I actually prefered this one. She didn't seem to set out to write the great Canadian novel with this one, she seemed to just want to tell a simple story.


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