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Beth Reads: Review of Carol Shields’ Unless

Unless by Carol Shields

Before my recent reading of Unless, I’d never read much Carol Shields, and some of her best-known titles (Larry’s Party, The Box Garden, The Stone Diaries etc.) are still on my ‘To Read’ list (in the smallest font, it would still be taller than I am), and getting closer to the top as I realize how very much I love Shields’ writing.

I first read Happenstance a few years ago, after picking up a used copy on this little web site I know… *ahem*, and was instantly struck by how effective the writing, particularly in regard to people, was. I loved the book and couldn’t get over how well Shields wrote people.

Having just finished Unless, I’m convinced. It wasn’t just a fluke. Unless is the story of 44-year-old-Reta Winters (born Reta Summers, a fact that fast bonded her to her husband, Tom): writer, wife, mother, and basically blessed person. She has really never questioned her overall contentedness – her financial comfort, her marriage (still going strong, even the sex!), her three daughters, even her dog – until something happens to her eldest daughter.

Norah, 19, has left her boyfriend, left university, and spends her days sitting on a busy downtown Toronto street corner, wearing a sign she has hand-printed with the simple entreaty: GOODNESS. She has historically been stable, if sensitive, loving, rational, bright, intuitive, and above all, present. Norah’s vanishing, both physically and mentally, sends Reta’s entire world into doubt. It creates an awareness of vulnerability, where before there was comfort taken for granted, if not complacency. As Reta becomes alert to the dangers around herself and Norah, she becomes angry at a world she feels has let them down.

The writing is basic, simple, and absolutely heartbreaking. I am not a parent, but the grief, terror and all-encompassing need to take care of a child is portrayed exquisitely throughout the pages of Unless. Many times I could barely see to read, for tears blurring my vision. It is heartfelt and sincere without being sentimental, honest and basic without being stark, and tremendously affecting, particularly toward the end. I’ll read this again, one day.

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