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Carol Shields
Toronto: Random House of Canada, 2002.
CDN$35.95, 321 Pages, ISBN 0-679-31179-3.

Joelle d'Entremont
Université de Rouen

Canadian author Carol Shields, whose latest books include Jane Austen (2001), and Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000), won various prestigious awards for her novel, The Stone Diaries (1993), including the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in Canada, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US and the Prix de Lire in France. Her novel before Unless, Larry’s Party (1997) won the Orange Prize for Fiction. Fans of Carol Shields have had to wait patiently for Unless.

is the story of a period of Reta Winters’s life. She is a mother of three daughters, the wife of a successful physician, a translator/writer, living in suburban Orangetown, a small town of 500 and an hour’s drive from Toronto. It is the story of a forty-something woman’s account of pain-deep emotional pain over the loss of her eldest daughter, Norah. Apparently she has led the “perfect life”—at least what Western society would generally perceive as the “perfect life”. She has enjoyed a long-term, stable relationship with a physician, Tom. They live a comfortable, upper-middle class life surrounded by family, friends, right down to the family dog, Pet. Reta has had her three children by the age of thirty and has been a successful translator of the almost mythical feminist, Dr. Danielle Westerman. She has also published her first novel and is working on a sequel. It doesn’t seem that Reta has to “work outside the home”; writing is a passion and a “serious hobby” for her, and she has had the luxury to devote herself to it. In effect, she has what I would call “the charmed life”, lacking all of the stresses of living from pay cheque to pay cheque, job cuts, unemployment, and wondering when and how the next rent money will appear. That is, however, until tragedy strikes and her daughter Norah suddenly and inexplicably quits university and begins living on a street corner in Toronto, practically in a catatonic state, with a sign around her neck bearing the words “GOODNESS”. People drop coins in front of her and she sleeps each night in an Anglican-run hostel. This is the trigger for Reta to begin a journey of self-examination, examining Norah’s life, our cultural messages and what all of this means.

The novel is told from Reta’s perspective, therefore, we do not observe the inner workings of the other characters in the novel, such as Reta’s family members, friends and acquaintances. However, a few subtle hints are provided and more is revealed towards the end of the novel, but with enough intrigue to keep the reader guessing. Tom, Reta’s “husband” (they never actually had a wedding ceremony) is a physician although his true passion in life is the study of trilobites—small prehistoric creatures now captured only as fossils. We only hear of Tom attending trilobite conferences, rather than attending medical conferences, and he seems to voraciously read everything written about them. Yet, as a physician, he is well-loved in the community: “Tom is a saint, some people in Orangetown think, so patient, so humane, so quietly authoritative.” (72) Although he is competent as a physician, one is left wondering if he did not simply follow what was expected of him by his physician father.

Dr. Danielle Westerman is an ongoing and fascinating presence throughout the novel and the backdrop of Reta’s self-examination/questioning. She is a prominent feminist writer who grew up in France, holder of twenty-seven honorary degrees and Holocaust survivor. A fascinating yet somewhat mysterious character about whose early life we are only given a few hints. Reta’s translations of her memoirs gained her some success; besides, Dr. Danielle Westerman's influence over Reta is profound, and not negligible when it comes to coping with her daughter’s crisis. Other characters include a wide variety of people such as editors, Reta’s two other teenage daughters, and friends.

The novel unfolds as Reta strives to disentangle her tightly bound concepts of life, her notions as to what life should be according to her perceptions and experiences. How fortunate for her; many women don’t have such luxury of daily, deep introspection and analysis. Shields has created a complex yet accessible character; I felt myself reacting strongly to Reta, as if she were a real person in my life (notwithstanding the fact that Reta does remind me of people I know.) Reta’s inner thought process and journey is then reflected in her outside world, as seen in the writing of her second novel and her dealings with her new editor. I do not mean to imply, however, that Unless is “heavy-duty” reading—Shields has a quick, sharp wit, and a tremendous style that at times leaves the reader with her/his jaw hanging out. This is how Shields describes turning thirty-five:

My age-thirty-five-shouted at me all the time, standing tall and wide in my head, and blocking access to what my life afforded. Thirty-five never sat down with its hands folded. Thirty-five had no composure. It was always humming mean, terse tunes on a piece of folded cellophane. (7)

In another instance, she speaks of charm as a character trait:

Anyone can be charming. It’s really a cheap trick, mere charm, so astonishingly easy to perform, screwing up your face into sunbeams, and spewing them forth […] I know that cheapness so intimately—the grainy, sugary, persevering way charm enters a fresh mouth and rubs against the molars, sticking there in soft wads, promoting mouth ulcers or whatever it is that’s the metaphoric projection of self-hatred. (28-29)

The novel continues with Reta, whose life has become somewhat chaotic, as she tries to maintain a sense of organization, normalcy and control. At the beginning of the novel, she distances herself emotionally from the trauma of Norah’s leaving so suddenly. She tries to desperately hold on to a sense of order and “goodness” to stave off actually feeling the pain and guilt. The theme of order keeps appearing in the first half of the novel, especially when she goes to the local public library, the epitome of order and doing good in the world.

When I first began to read Reta’s inner thoughts and feelings, I was slightly taken aback, if not annoyed at her sense of entitlement or how-dare-this-happen-to-me? Shields created a character caught between the sheltered bubble of her previous life and coming to terms with hardship in her life. The shift doesn’t happen in an instant—it is subtle, careful and insightful. For example, Reta reminisces about a trip to France:

Looking back, I can scarcely believe in such innocence. I didn’t think about our girls growing older and leaving home and falling away from us. Norah had been a good, docile baby and then she became a good, obedient little girl. Now, at 19, she’s so brimming with goodness that she sits on a Toronto street corner. (11)

My annoyance with Reta continued for a few dozen pages. Then a shift occurs in the novel, and Reta’s malaise blossoms into greater awareness and understanding. The bubble breaks and she has to learn to live with chaos, messy uncertainty, and loss, mainly informed by the writings and theories of Dr. Danielle Westerman:

“Subversion of society is possible for a mere few; inversion is more commonly the tactic for the powerless, a retreat from society that borders on the catatonic.” (Alive, 1987, p. 304) I wasn’t inclined to believe this statement when I first translated it, but now I believe it absolutely. Danielle’s hypothesis has moved into my body and occupies more and more space. (218)

We witness this “coming to consciousness”, where Reta can no longer view and interact with the world in the same way. She theorizes Norah’s situation through this feminist lense, yet one wonders continuously if she is projecting her own feelings of outrage about the illusions, injustices and limitations of her own life. As Dr. Westerman once wrote, “One can have goodness but not greatness.” (249) Reta begins to notice cultural messages regarding the place of women in the world and writes letters of protests. At first, she doesn’t send them nor does she sign her real name. At the end, in a poignant, witty and sharp letter regarding a doctor being offended by a store advertising mastectomy bras, she finally finds and asserts her voice.

Adding richness to the novel is the fact that Shields is continually commenting upon writing processes—autobiographical and metafictional aspects abound. Shields is writing about a woman, who is writing about a woman, who is also writing about a woman who is… Reta states: “I too am aware of being in incestuous water, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer […]” (208)

The chapters after the second half of the novel become shorter and Reta’s voice, which is stronger, moves away from naïveté to deeper awareness. At the end of the novel, we find out what actually occurred to Norah and most loose ends are tied up nicely. I’m left with a sense that a piece is missing of Reta and the development of the character. She continues with her life and yes, she is no longer the person she was at the beginning of the novel, yet all is too perfect at the end. “Happily ever after” fairytale endings have always left me a little wary, as they tend to promote unrealistic expectations in readers. In spite of this, Unless is a novel worthy of use in any Gender Studies or Women Studies courses. Despite the ending, it is a complex novel and I’m not sure everyone will “get it”. As Reta states at one point: “Sally doesn’t get it. I’m not sure Lynn does either. Annette does I think. Maybe because she’s black as well as female.” (252) I wonder if I fully “got it” myself

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