Reading guide for Unless by Carol Shields

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Unless

By Carol Shields

Unless
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  • Hardcover: May 2002,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: May 2003,
    336 pages.

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

"Unless, unless. Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around your ear. You hardly hear and yet, everything depends on its breathy presence. Unless -- that's the little subjunctive mineral you carry along in your pocket crease. It's always there, or else not there. Unless you're lucky, unless you're healthy, fertile, unless you're loved and fed, unless you're clear about your sexual direction, unless you're offered what others are offered. You go down into darkness, down into despair. Unless provides us with a trap door, a tunnel into the light the reverse side of not enough. Unless keeps you from presiding into the drowning arrangements. Ironically, unless, the lever which that finally shifts reality into a new perspective cannot be expressed in French. A moins que does not have quite the heft; sauf is crude. Unless is a miracle of language and perception, Danielle Westerman says in her most recent essay "The Shadow of the Mind." It makes us anxious, makes us cunning. Cunning like the wolves that crop up in the most thrilling fairy tales. But it gives us hope…"
-- Reta Winters, UNLESS


Topics for Discussion

Goodness:

  1. Many definitions for goodness are raised in the novel. Do you think that Reta ever comes to a conclusion about what goodness is? If not, do you think she has realized anything about the nature of goodness?

  2. What do you think Norah means when she talks to her mother about not being able to love anyone enough because she loves the world more? Do you think that Reta understands what Norah is saying?

  3. How would you characterize Norah's relationship with her mother? How do you feel about Tom and Reta's response to Norah's leaving? Would you describe them as 'good' parents?

  4. Why do you think Norah decides to abandon her life and stand on a street corner? What do you think that "goodness" means to her? Does it matter that we never learn why the woman on the Toronto street corner set herself on fire?

Distraction:

  1. Why do you think Reta spends so much time thinking about Mrs. McGinn and the envelope she found behind the radiator, even after she realizes that it's just a baby shower invitation? How much of what we know about Norah comes from Reta's imagination?

Men and women:

  1. Do you think there's any significance to the fact that Tom and Reta aren't married?

  2. Consider the scene when Reta has the theory of relativity explained to her by Colin Glass. Do you think that Reta understands what Colin is saying? How would you describe the nature of Reta's tone in this exchange?

Work:

  1. Compare Reta and Danielle Westerman. Name the attributes you do and don't admire in each of them.

  2. How serious do you think Reta is about her work? What do you think about the fact that she writes (but does not send) various letters about woman writers not being taken seriously?

Writers writing about writers writing about writers:

  1. Are there ever times when you feel like Carol Shields is narrating the book? If so, can you identify particular moments when this happens? Do you consider this mixed narrative style effective? Why or why not?

Silence:

  1. Do you have any ideas about why Lois is silent for most of the novel? What do you think about the fact that she basically tells her entire life to Arthur Springer?

  2. The novel's epigraph reads "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels heartbeat and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of that silence". What do you think of this quote? Do you think it's an appropriate introduction to the novel?

Author's Note
I wanted to write, mainly, about the question of goodness -- what it means, how much goodness is available to us as contemporary beings, if the drive for goodness is real or a projection of our imagination, or just lint from the fluffy side of our brain.

I also wanted to write about mothers and daughters, about writers and readers, and about men and women. This sleeping elephant, as I visualized it, had four feet, and I wanted to draw him (her?) slowly to a standing position, first one knee, then another, then the whole bulky body heaving itself solidly upward.

The voice of Reta Winters, 44, writer, translator, mother, arrived by way of a short story, "The Scarf," from Dressing Up for the Carnival. Almost all the questions of life perplex her, but she never for a minute resists the temptation to ignore them. I wanted her to have a happy marriage -- since I almost never see such marriages in fiction and wonder why not. The fictional world and the way it overlaps and interrogates the "real" world, has always been part of my love of literature. Like any novelist I write so that I can share something of my own vision of the world, but I wanted with this book -- I always want -- to write fiction that offers delight and good will.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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