Excerpt from Unless by Carol Shields, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Unless

by Carol Shields

Unless
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  • First Published:
    May 2002, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2003, 336 pages

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   6. I lost a year after this, which I don't understand, since all three girls had started school, though Natalie was only in morning kindergarten. I think I was too busy thinking about the business of being a writer, about being writerly and fretting over whether Tom's ego was threatened and being in Danielle's shadow, never mind Derrida, and needing my own writing space and turning thirty-five and feeling older than I've ever felt since. 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. ("I am composed," said John Quincy Adams on his deathbed. How admirable and enviable and beyond belief; I loved him for this.)

   This anguish of mine was unnecessary; Tom's ego was unchallenged by my slender publications. He turned out to be one of those men we were worried about in the seventies and eighties, who might shrivel in acknowledgment of his own insignificance. Ordinary was what he wanted, to be an ordinary man embedded in a family he loved. We put a skylight in the box room, bought a used office desk, installed a fax and a computer, and I sat down on my straight-from-a-catalogue Freedom Chair and translated Danielle Westerman's immense Les femmes et le pouvoir, the English version published in 1992, volume two of her memoirs. In English the title was changed to Women Waiting, which only makes sense if you've read the book. (Women possess power, but it is power that has yet to be seized, ignited, and released, and so forth.) This time no one grumped about my translation. "Sparkling and full of ease," the Globe said, and the New York Times went one better and called it "an achievement."

"You are my true sister," said Danielle Westerman at the time of publication. Ma vraie soeur. I hugged her back. Her craving for physical touch has not slackened even in her eighties, though nowadays it is mostly her doctor who touches her, or me with my weekly embrace, or the manicurist. Dr. Danielle Westerman is the only person I know who has her nails done twice a week, Tuesday and Saturday (just a touch-up), beautiful long nail beds, matching her long quizzing eyes.

   7. I was giddy. All at once translation offers were arriving in the mail, but I kept thinking I could maybe write short stories, even though our Glenmar group was dwindling, what with Emma taking a job in Newfoundland, Annette getting her divorce, and Gwen moving to the States. The trouble was, I hated my short stories. I wanted to write about the overheard and the glimpsed, but this kind of evanescence sent me into whimsy mode, and although I believed whimsicality to be a strand of the human personality, I was embarrassed at what I was pumping into my new Apple computer, sitting there under the clean brightness of the skylight. Pernicious, precious, my moments of recognition. Ahah!-and then she realized; I was so fetching with my "Ellen was setting the table and she knew tonight would be different." A little bug sat in my ear and buzzed: Who cares about Ellen and her woven placemats and her hopes for the future?

   I certainly didn't care.

   Because I had three kids, everyone said I should be writing kiddy lit, but I couldn't find the voice. Kiddy lit screeched in my brain. Talking ducks and chuckling frogs. I wanted something sterner and more contained as a task, which is how I came to write Shakespeare and Flowers (San Francisco: Cyclone Press, 1994). The contract was negotiated before I wrote one word. Along came a little bundle of cash to start me off, with the rest promised on publication. I thought it was going to be a scholarly endeavour, but I ended up producing a wee "giftie" book. You could send this book to anyone on your list who was maidenly or semi-academic or whom you didn't know very well. Shakespeare and Flowers was sold in the kind of outlets that stock greeting cards and stuffed bears. I simply scanned the canon and picked up references to, say, the eglantine (A Midsummer Night's Dream) or the blackberry (Troilus and Cressida) and then I puffed out a little description of the flower, and conferenced on the phone (twice) with the illustrator in Berkeley, and threw in lots of Shakespearean quotes. A sweet little book, excellent slick paper, US$12.95. At sixty-eight pages it fits in a small mailer. Two hundred thousand copies, and still selling, though the royalty rate is scandalous. They'd like me to do something on Shakespeare and animals, and I just might.

Copyright Carol Shields 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher

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