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Last Reviewed on October 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

Reta Winters, the protagonist of Unless, has difficulty expressing, even to herself, the nature of her feelings of grief—whether she cares more about her daughter Norah’s current activities or about how that behavior reflects on her as a mother. She understands significant aspects of her identity as connected to the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, but she also identifies strongly as a wife and mother. Norah, who is about twenty, has recently started sitting on a street corner, silently awaiting alms while bearing a sign that reads “Goodness.” She does not want to explain herself to her family.

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Norah sits cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap and asks nothing of the world. . . . This is the place she’s claimed, a whole world constructed on stillness. An easy stance, says the condemning, grieving mother, easy to find and maintain, given enough practice. A sharper focus could be achieved by tossing in an astringent fluid, a peppery sauce, irony, rebellion, tattoos and pierced tongue and spiked purple hair, but no.

Reta, now in her forties, has worked primarily as a translator but has also written original works. Reta reflects on the aspirations she once held—but has now given up—of writing a serious novel. She reviews the characters and plot outline that she had developed for the now-abandoned work. Decades later, she views it as not only conventional but derivative, and she wonders what had engaged her about the lives of those ordinary people. She realizes now that the artifice she had loved represented an escape from her own life, which she could not admit she believed was perfect.

I thought I understood something of a novel’s architecture, the lovely slope of predicament, the tendrils of surface detail, the calculated curving upward into inevitability, yet allowing spells of...

(The entire section contains 479 words.)

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