In Unless (2002), Carol Shields’s tenth novel, she tackles some of her familiar subjects—family relationships, the importance of writing and storytelling, and finding one’s place in the challenging modern world—but places them in the larger framework of women’s understanding of their place in that same milieu. Though Shields’s work often contains strong female characters, she rarely makes direct or strident feminist statements. In Unless, however, Shields deviates from her standard fare by including a very angry message about women’s treatment in a postfeminist world. By having the crises of the novel told from a strong, first-person narrator who is part of family and community settings, however, Shields also uses the larger arcs of the novel to comment on familial and interpersonal themes which are more common in her oeuvre.
The narrator of Unless, Reta Winters, appeared earlier in the short story “The Scarf,” taken from Shields’s collection Dressing Up for the Carnival(2001). Shields even includes a summary of the story’s action within the first few chapters of the novel. The Reta of the earlier story, however, was caught in the humorous situation of having to buy a scarf for a daughter who did not seem to want very much. Never one for shopping or worrying about purchasing for others, Reta begins to see that the process of buying the scarf can become an artistic act. Her search in this story is a search for perfection: the need to get the most appropriate scarf for her daughter. At the end of the story, she retells the story of the search to a writer friend. Because Reta has not made it clear she was shopping for her daughter, the woman mistakenly believes Reta has purchased the scarf for her. The most appropriate scarf for her daughter becomes the most appropriate scarf for someone else, thus undercutting the relevance of Reta’s philosophic search. Though the focus on Reta’s internal search will inform her investigations in Unless, the story turns on Shields’s penchant for exploring relationships, couched with humor concerning the characters’ flawed interpretations.
The narrative that follows from this story, however, is anything but humorous. At the outset, the reader learns that Reta’s eldest daughter, Norah, has abruptly left her normal life in Toronto and shown up on the street with a sign that says “Goodness.” She leaves her comfortable apartment, which she shares with a boyfriend, as well as her classes at the university. She does not speak to her family and behaves as a homeless person. Even in the cold Toronto winter, Norah sits at the same corner, then spends the night in a nearby homeless shelter. Much of the novel is, in effect, Reta trying to work through the implications of Norah’s actions, trying to figure out what would drive her daughter, a happy, privileged girl of the upper middle class, to make such an unprecedented move. To convey Reta’s puzzled and frantic behavior, Shields includes many internal monologues which have the feel of journal entries, as well as letters and other forms of writing; Reta’s voice reconstructs the story of Norah’s abdication and the aftermath. Though Norah’s story takes precedence in Reta’s mind, it is not the main narrative thread in the novel. Beyond the facts of Norah’s problems and their implications for her future lies Reta’s inability to deal with the complexity of such unprecedented grief. Her need to reconstruct Norah’s flight and then interpret her choice of the word “Goodness” constitute the majority of the novel. Reta’s search and her quixotic, intellectual probings showcase Shields’s proclivity for exploring character and motivation in practical and imaginative ways.
Despite the fact that Shields has a clever command of linguistic irony and verbal wit, most of this novel’s humor shifts from her typically light-hearted banter to comedy of a decidedly black nature. For example, about midway through the novel, Reta begins writing letters to various people who have angered her. Since she does not send these letters, her writing of them is a decidedly feeble way to react against society. She writes these letters to odd people, such as a man whose obituary she finds offensive to women. At the conclusion of each letter, she indicates her main gripe, then signs the letter with a fictitious name and hometown—typically a variation on her real antecedents. Reta’s manner in these letters is jocular, much like her persona. Yet the messages themselves are chilling, even as they are delivered with comic timing. In one letter to...
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