Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Unless - Carol Shields



This is my second book for The 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, Eh?

Carol Shields' final novel, Unless is about a 44-year-old writer and translator, Reta Winters, whose oldest daughter suddenly and inexplicably drops out of college and life in general to panhandle on a street corner in Toronto with a cardboard sign around her neck that reads "Goodness".

As Reta tries to carry on as normally as possible during this crisis, (taking care of her family, writing a second novel, and helping her mentor, a famous French writer who seems to be a cross between Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer translate her memoirs) she is constantly trying to figure out what brought Norah to this point. Norah's father thinks it was one traumatic event. Reta is more of the "last straw" school of thought. What happened?

Unless reminds me a lot of a novel I read earlier this year, How To Be Good. It would be interesting to read and compare these two novels side-by-side. Nick Hornby's novel bristles with wit and intelligence, as his characters grapple with how far you can take "goodness" in your everyday life and still live reasonably.
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The subject of goodness has a more serious tone than in Hornby's novel, but there's also humor in Shield's novel of a wryer sort, especially when her beloved editor dies and she has to deal with his replacement. The new editor betrays himself as a complete ass as he attempts to steamroll Reta with his own ideas about fiction writing and turn her into merely a mouthpiece. (A male author would have decked him, and I was rooting for Reta to do just that.) He's both absurd and pathetic because Reta has been giving an elegant and thoughtful commentary about the nature and craft of writing throughout the novel.

Unless was a satisfying read on many different levels. I highly recommend it, and I'm looking forward to reading two other Shields books that I've chosen for this challenge, Dressing Up For The Carnival and Larry's Party.

12 comments:

John Mutford said...

My wife thought Unless was too slow paced. I enjoyed it though (more than the Stone Diaries actually. She's reading Dressing Up For The Carnival as her first read in the Canadian Challenge (look for a guest blogger on my site).

Lisa said...

I relented and joined the challenge today,and this is one of the books I've chosen. I've never read anything by Shields before. It sounds good.

Chris said...

I'm a big fan of Shields so I enjoyed this one as well. Great review!

thatsthebook said...

I know I've told you before but I love Dressing Up for the Carnival

Bybee said...

John,
I just fell right into it. Utterly absorbed.

Lisa,
I'm glad you joined.

Chris,
Thanks for saying the review was great. It was frustrating to write because I felt as if I wasn't doing her lovely book justice or giving it the best props I could. I hit my head on upper limits of my writing ability.

Aaron,
CanadaBoy's mum gave me that book 3 years ago...I can't believe I haven't read it yet, but that will be taken care of soon.

SFP said...

Interrupting the Carol Shields (I love her) discussion to give you this link, Bybee. Nancy Pearl talks about The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91364064

literatehousewife said...

I have the Stone Diaries and I will be reading that as part of the Book Award Challenge. This review really makes me excited about that. If Unless sounds that good, the Stone Diaries should be pretty interesting. I'm going to keep my eyes open for Unless, too. Thanks for the great review!

Dewey said...

This reminded me why I wanted to read Unless, and now it'll move up TBR Mountain! Once it's unpacked, that is.

Bybee said...

SFP,
Oh thank you! thankyouthankyouthankyou!!!

Literate,
I liked Stone Diaries, but for me, Unless was even better. Can't wait to see how the others stack up.

Oh Dewey,
I wish I could come over and "help" you unpack the books!

Lesley said...

I've had this one on my TBR shelf for quite some time. I've enjoyed the books of hers I've read, it's sad that we won't have anything new to read from her. And I didn't know there was a 2nd Canadian Challenge - I might have to give it a try and see if I can actually complete it this time!

Bybee said...

Lesley,
The 2nd one just started. You've got loads of time.

Jena said...

I loved Dressing Up for the Carnival! In fact, I think it was the first book on my blog: http://musebookreviews.blogspot.com/2006/10/dressing-up-for-carnival-by-carol.html