Unless by Carol Shields is a novel in which the chief protagonist, Reta Winters, presents her story in the first person. Reta, who is fourty-three years old at the time of writing, is a successful novelist. Her family consists of her husband, Tom, and their three daughters, Norah, Natalie, and Christine. Things go awry for the Winters family when they discover that their eldest daughter, Norah, has taken to begging on a street corner in Toronto with a cardboard placard displaying the word “goodness.”
Norah has dropped out of college and sleeps at the Promise Hostel. Her parents and sisters come to visit her, but they are unsuccessful in breaking through her stony rebuffs. Reta is confused about how to react to the situation. She receives advice from friends and well-wishers, but in the face of this unprecedented situation, she doesn’t know what would be the right action to take. Finally, taking the advice of her friend Danielle Westerman, an author, Reta concludes that Norah’s behavior is in response to a patriarchal society that refuses to recognize the achievements of women.
Reta takes to writing letters to men, though she does not post these letters. In the letters, she explains her concept of female exclusion. Tom suggests that their daughter is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Reta believes that Norah’s trauma could have arisen from the realization that she is destined to lead a miniaturized and unfulfilled life in a man’s world. Even though Reta wants her hypothesis to be wrong, events from her own life lead her to believe that maybe she’s right about the cause of Norah’s situation.
Through her musings on hair, shopping, and house cleaning, Reta tries to discover some order and sense of direction in her present chaotic state. She uses her writing to find clarity within her present situation and within her life as a whole.
Towards the end of the novel, the author reveals that the word “unless,” chosen as the title of the book, functions as a conjunction within the novel. The titles of each of her chapters are also conjunctions, prepositions, or adverbs, such as “hence,” “hardly,” and “next”—just like the title, they serve to connect the chapters to each other.
The word “unless” is used to connect sentences and thoughts. Similarly, discrete events in life often have a common thread running through them. It is up to each person to take note of this commonality, because it can serve as a warning.
At the conclusion of the novel, Norah spends time at the Toronto Hospital, where she’s treated for pulmonary edema. She recovers, much to her family’s delight. The novel ends on the hopeful note that Norah might take up a course in science or linguistics at McGill University.