Carol Shields

"Unless"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson JUL 21, 2002)

"Everyone is coming out these days for the pleasures of ordinary existence. Sunsets. Dandelions. Fencing in the back yard and staying home." Carol Shields wrote these lines several years ago in a short story titled "Soup du Jour." In that same story, she quotes a fictitious newspaper columnist as announcing, "The quotidian is where it's at."

 

Shields latest novel, Unless, is very much about "the pleasures of ordinary existence," though ordinary existence under stress.

Reta Winters (nee Summers), Shields' narrator, "has a husband who loves me and is faithful to me and is very decent looking as well." Reta and her family have lived for twenty years in a hundred year-old, roomy, yet simple brick Ontario farmhouse "weathered into durable authenticity…with a paid-up mortgage." Their home is located near the small village of Orangetown, in beautiful, rolling countryside an hour north of Toronto. Reta has three "intelligent and lively and attractive and loving" teenage daughters, and a shaggy Golden Retriever named Pet.

Tom, her husband, is a successful family physician, as was his father, and Tom has taken up where his father left off, practicing in the same town. Tom and Reta, children of the 60s, were never legally married, though they have lived together quite happily for twenty-six years. In addition to being a mother and a "homemaker," Rita is a writer of "light fiction" and a respected French translator.

It sounds like the ideal set-up, and it actually is. The majority of the book consists of descriptions by Reta of the many small daily pleasures that arise from being at the center of a loving, close-knit family.

Yet, "the quotidian" has been upset. Norah, Reta's nineteen year-old daughter, has suddenly dropped out of college. She now spends her days, for reasons unclear, "sitting cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap" at Bathurst and Bloor, a busy intersection in a somewhat seedy section of downtown Toronto. A large cardboard sign hangs around her neck. On it, in black magic marker, is written a single word: GOODNESS.

This unusual "crisis" allows Reta to begin her story with the sentence: "It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now."

However, Norah's ascetic life-style is not the real story here. Psychiatrists have been consulted and have advised "non-intervention." Norah sleeps each night and has meals each day in the Promise Hostel, a safe, well-kept shelter for the homeless. Her street corner is highly trafficked and efficiently patrolled.

Norah's two sisters, Natalie and Chris, visit her every Saturday afternoon, bringing gifts and necessities. Though Norah refuses to speak, Tom, her father, makes the trip down every Friday morning to sit silently beside her in a folding aluminum chair. Reta regularly drives by the intersection.

So, Norah is not at risk. In fact, she is supported by a loving family who care only for her well being.

Unless is not about Norah, who fades in and out of the narrative. Her situation is an almost unnecessary conceit. What it does do is serve as a foil, adding the requisite angst to what is actually a smart and highly entertaining comic novel. Unless is about Reta, a strong, insightful woman, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor and an uncanny ability to unlock the hidden essence of the ordinary in quite an extraordinary way.

Reta is a comic writer; and, Shields is certainly a fine one herself.

We follow Reta as she visits the local Orangetown Library, populated by duo librarians, Tessa and Cheryl. Tessa, in her 50s, "possesses several lolloping chins, which shift as she talks, each one a millisecond out of sync with the movement of her surprisingly small mouth." Cheryl, soon to be married to a soon-to-be divorced Indian dentist trained in Bombay, has the unique ability to alter the endings of stories she reads to children ensuring that all have happy endings.

We accompany Reta to her Tuesday morning coffees ("every morning for ten years") with her three close friends, Annette, Sally and Lynn. "We talk about all kinds of topics, although we don't talk about our sex lives---I think we avoid this subject out of a very old taboo, the need to protect others." (Reta's sex life, we are told discretely, is quite satisfactory.) "Sometimes we drop in gender discoveries…the observation that men won't, if they can help it, sit in the middle seat of a sofa, but women don't seem to care."

We travel with Reta on a disastrous, but hilarious East Coast book publicity tour where "three rather baffled-looking customers" show up for a signing at one Washington, D.C. bookstore, none at another. We see her do battle with a brash young, nitwit editor from New York who wants to completely alter her novel in progress, making the female heroine a man. (Reta is a strong feminist, and this emerges throughout.)

The striving-to-be-earnest editor arrives at Reta's home just as the family is leaving to visit Norah who has been hospitalized for pneumonia. The editor is left with Louise, Reta's 86-year-old mother-in-law. The editor has recently learned "in a seminar" to initiate conversations with strangers with the question. "Tell me about yourself." The encounter and Louise's response is high sit-com.

Shields is writing about a writer who often shares with the reader thoughts about her writing. And, because Shields, herself, is such a fine writer, the feeling is one of a rare and privileged look behind the scenes at a simple, yet sophisticated theatrical production. (Summer theater in the Berkshires comes to mind, or perhaps, with a nod to Canada, plays staged at the Stratford or Shaw Festivals.)

One such passage is especially illustrative of this inside look. It describes the structure of a novel, actually, though we are not told so, the structure of this novel.

"I thought I understood something of a novel's architecture,'" Reta muses, "the lovely slope of predicament, the tendrils of surface detail, the calculating curving upward into inevitability, yet allowing spells of incorrigibility, and then the ending, a corruption of cause and effect and the gathering together of all the characters into a framed operatic circle of consolation and ecstasy, backlit with fibre-optic gold, just for a moment on the second-to-the-last page, just for an atomic particle of time."

Unless is indeed a novel in praise of "the pleasures of ordinary existence." We are treated to more than one "atomic particle of time," "backlit with fibre-optic gold." This is Norman Rockwell meets the Dalai Lama. Unless raises "the quotidian," to its rightful place, where the everyday is a constant source of beauty and enlightenment. Finally, Shields is, as they say, at the top of her form, which is quite an elevation. Unless is a very special novel, one definitely not to be missed.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 116 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt of Unless at HarperCollins.com



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About the Author:

Carol ShieldsCarol Shields, born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1935, studied at Hanover College, the University of Exeter in England, and received an MA from the University of Ottawa. At age 22, she married Donald Shields and moved to Canada, where she lived the rest of her life. She is the mother of five now grown children.

Shields had been a professor at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia, and taught at the University of Manitoba for 15 years. In 1996, she became the Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She is a novelist, poet, playwright, and critic. She is the recipient of fifteen honorary doctorates from Universities in Canada and the United States, and was awarded Orders of Canada in 1999 and 2002.


Carol Shields is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Stone Diaries. The Stone Diaries also won Canada’s Governor General Award for Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Stone Diaries was nominated for the 1993 Booker Prize. Additionally, it was named one of the best books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly, and a Notable Book by the New York Times Book Review.


Her novel, Larry’s Party, was the winner of the Orange Prize and The New York Times Notable Book of the Year. It was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize. Larry’s Party was also adapted as a musical by Richard Ouzounian and Marek Norman, and premiered at Canadian Stage in January 2001.


Most of her latest novel Unless was written in seven months when Shields “had energy." In 1999, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy; the cancer came back and she died of complications on July 16, 2003 at the age of 68. Unless was made into a stage play by Carol and her daughter Sara. It was performed in the major cities of Canada in 2005.

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