Unless by Carol Shields


  • Canadian Fiction fans
  • Women
  • Women interested in feminist literature

Canada Reads 2011, book 2.  This book was chosen as a contestant for CBC’s Canada Reads by Lorne Cardinal (the police officer from Corner Gas?!) I think I would enjoy listening to his defense.

I have never read a book by Carol Shields. There, I’ve confessed it. But I guess if Lorne Cardinal is recommending it, it must be good.  HA!

Reta Winters is the main character in Carol Shields’s Unless. She is a writer whose most auspicious achievement is translating the life story and works of a  francophone feminist philosopher. She has also written some work of her own. Her most successful endeavor is a feel-good novel that she was not too proud of: Thyme in Bloom. Reta is also a mother of three teenaged daughters. Her eldest daughter, Norah, attends U of T but disappeared for a few days, and showed up on the corner of a street in downtown Toronto. She had dropped out of university and had taken to begging with a sign around her neck that said GOODNESS.

Norah, refused to come home and would barely acknowledge her family when they come to visit her.  The loss of her daughter in this way, shakes Reta up. She becomes confused and depressed, and searches through many possibilities as to why Norah would choose this path. To muster through this worrisome time, she has begun a sequel to her not-so-profound book. Except, while she is writing it, she begins to change the characters so that they are deeply real, rather then just surface characters driven by plot.

Through this horrible ordeal, Reta evaluated the way she was living her life and she, along with her characters, becomes deeper and more real. [SPOILER WARNING, skip the next sentence] The story has a nice ending, things work out, Norah comes home, and Reta’s new novel is published.


Unless is about the unknown, or the alternative that could happen. I’m pretty good at pulling themes from books, in fact, I would say figuring out themes and metaphors in novels is something I am VERY good at. This book stumps me. I have a hard time piecing Shield’s use of the word “Unless.” Any thoughts?

The main theme I could deduce was the subjugation of women. How we as a gender can only desire to be GOOD, but not GREAT.  Reta Winters’ daughter, Norah, leaves the promise of the future because she was overwhelmed with this inconsistency.  Perhaps this then, is the reason why I was never really infatuated with this book.  Sometimes, I just don’t see it.

I got caught up in this issue because I am in the time that I am, 2011, 27 years old. I know I am valued as a woman. If I sometimes feel bored and unstimulated at home with my kids, it is because I have made this decision. I chose to have kids and I enjoy being home with them.  I believe that if I wanted to, I could be anything and do anything.

The distinction may be that I get a choice.

Shields wants to impart on her readers that our society still holds a fundamental injustice towards women. That we as a sex, are destined to only GOODNESS, but never GREATNESS.  In the book, Reta Winters writes anonymous letters to various famous individuals and causes chastising them for” having must read cannons” that exclude women writers. I agree with Shields, that it is a shame that there aren’t more women writers that are celebrated from the 1900s, I feel we have to be objective.  There were just less women back then writing.

To say that this is still relevant in Canada is something of a foil. Shields’ cause may be for my mother’s generation.  But PLEASE someone shut me down. I may just be sheltered.

Shelagh Rogers interviewed Shields in 2002 (when Unless was first published). You can listen to it here.