Carol Shields’s novel is primarily the story of a mother’s quest to recover her lost child. This quest involves both a literal, physical journey, as Reta Winter tries to reconnect with Norah, her young adult daughter. It is also a story of recovery, for Reta would like things to return to the way they once were: in wishing that her daughter had stayed the same, she is essentially mourning for her own lost youth. Both women have become alienated from a rapidly changing world but respond to that separation in different ways. Therefore, the spiritual and physical quest is also a prominent dimension of Unless. Because the book operates on both levels, one could identifying highly different components as important.
Voice and speech are also important components. Norah has left an apparently comfortable middle-class life to live on the street. She does not speak but holds up a sign that reads “Goodness.” Yet in silence, Norah has found her voice, as she communicates her values in this seemingly monastic manner. Reta’s voice, in contrast, is increasingly inwardly directed as she tries to understand both her daughter’s actions and her own strongly negative reactions toward Norah’s choices. This matter of voice drives the plot in the latter part, as Reta begins writing and sending letters.
One running theme in them is women’s place in a misogynist world. Reta must continue her own search, trusting her words as a writer rather than modifying others’ words as a translator. The answers that Reta and Tom, Norah’s husband, uncover about her Norah’s motivations for radical change also relate to the theme of injustice toward women.