Summary and book reviews of Unless by Carol Shields

Unless

by Carol Shields

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

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Book Summary

A harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family's anguish and healing.

I'm not interested, the way some people are, in being sad. I've had a look, and there's nothing down that road. Well now! What about the ripping sound behind my eyes, the starchy tearing of fabric, end to end; what about the need I have to curl up my knees when I sleep?

For all of her life, 44 year old Reta Winters has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light 'summertime' fiction. But this placid existence is cracked wide open when her beloved eldest daughter, Norah, drops out to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads 'GOODNESS.' Reta's search for what drove her daughter to such a desperate statement turns into an unflinching and surprisingly funny meditation on where we find meaning and hope.

Warmth, passion and wisdom come together in Shields' remarkably supple prose. Unless, a harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family's anguish and healing, proves her mastery of extraordinary fictions about ordinary life.

Here's

It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I've heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I've never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.

   In my new life--the summer of the year 2000--I am attempting to "count my blessings." Everyone I know advises me to take up this repellent strategy, as though they really believe a dramatic loss can be replaced by the renewed appreciation of all one has been given. I have a husband, Tom, who loves me and is ...

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 ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

New York Times Book Review

The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.

Book Magazine

Marvelously idiosyncratic, passionate and wise, Shields' tenth novel rollicks from beginning to end with sauciness and wit.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A fine book, poignant, witty, rich in character, vivid in its sense of place...surprisingly suspenseful.

San Francisco Chronicle

A novel of... assured intelligence and defiant vivacity.

Time Magazine

A superb new novel...a graceful coda, an arabesque performed over an abyss.

Kirkus

Starred Review. Often quietly heartbreaking...often, bitingly humorous.

Publishers Weekly

A landmark book that constitutes yet another noteworthy addition to Shields's impressive body of work.

Booklist - Brad Hooper

Shields shares with fellow Canadian Alice Munro not only her Ontario milieu but also a gift for psychological acuity expressed in limpid, shimmering prose.

Library Journal

With yet another delectable investigation into human folly, Shields helps launch a new imprint at HarperCollins.

Author Blurb Anita Shreve, author of Sea Glass
A brave, profound, and quirky novel with an undercurrent of the deeply amusing.

Author Blurb Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat
A wonderful, powerful book, written in a style which combines simplicity and elegance. I found it deeply moving.

Reader Reviews

Erin McGrath

Unless will be a book that lives on in my heart. It has touched me deeply in a way I can only try to begin to explain. I started reading this book shortly after I found out my sister was murdered and I thought I would find commonality between Norah ...   Read More

Shirley Johnson

I am so grateful for Carol Shields and her works. I know it can't be true, but it always seems as though the words just pour out onto the page effortlessly. It is difficult to say why a book "hits" you, but one way I judge it for myself ...   Read More

Amy B

This book is excellent. Very touching . Carol Shields you did it again . . . You've made the Big One! This book is very compeling and very heart touching.

Helen H

I found the book very difficult to engage with, as I felt the author was juggling too many themes and that she had not a clear strategy for combining these themes in order to make the book a complete entitity. The characterization was very sketchy, ...   Read More

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