Monday, September 05, 2005

35. Unless

by Carol Shields

I’ve come, through experience, to believe that the best books are only found by accident. It’s always the ones you had to read for a class or kind of heard about and eventually read that knock you away and rarely the ones you rush out and read on recommendation of glowing reviews. Such is the case with Carol Shields’ Unless, a book I’d heard about many times on Chicklit, found remaindered at Unabridged, and put aside for nearly a year before finally cracking its cover. Though all mentions of the book on Chicklit were favorable, I had no expectations for it other than a decent read. What I found, however, was a profound, poignant, and well-written story that left me wondering why I’ve never heard the author’s name mentioned among the pantheon of great 20th century literature.

The book’s premise is fairly simple. Reta Winters is a wife and a mother of three teenaged daughters, one of whom has left college and taken up space on a street corner, communicating nothing save for the word “Goodness,” which she wears on a sign around her neck. What follows is not just Reta’s attempts to find the cause behind her daughter’s actions, but also what “goodness” really is and how a society could lead an otherwise intelligent and driven girl to her daughter’s end. Also a writer, Reta is in the midst of the follow up to her breakout debut and is occupied with teasing out the fictional relationships of her sequel, always trying to make them mirror some sort of reality. She must invent the reasons for their behaviors while searching for these reasons in her daughter.

What surprises me is that I’ve never heard this novel referred to as feminist when that’s exactly what it is. Reta and, as we later learn, her daughter are consumed with the notion that women can aspire to goodness, but never greatness. That is, their contributions to society can only be small, almost negligible, while men are allowed to contribute seminal treatises to culture. I would say that these feminist tones are both overt and subtle: Overt because Reta openly struggles with her limitations as a female, but subtle because the story never once veers toward a political agenda. That Reta feels frustrated in her place reflects a very real, feminine experience, never betraying an authorial hidden objective. The fact that Shields so easily balances on this line between the political and the personal is a skill that I can’t help but sit back and admire.

On the cover of my copy, Joanne Harris describes Unless as a combination of “simplicity and elegance,” and I can’t find a better pair of words to fit this book. The quality of Shield’s writing is just that: simple, pure, and never obstinate or ornate. I’m eager to delve into her other works, as I’m aware that she’s proliferate in her profession, with novels and short story collections and even a Pulitzer to her name. (Not that I let the Pulitzer thing influence me because, well, I did read The Shipping News.) But why isn’t Shields a bigger name? Why is it that I’ve only heard of this book through a forum of the reading-obsessed and not, say, a list of 100 Greatest Something-or-Other? Unless deserves to be on that list. This isn’t a book that is merely good. It’s great. I wish we were more aware of that.


Blogger Doppelganger said...

Heh. I have a two-word answer for you: Canadian author.

Carol Shields is my absolute favourite author, so much so that I actually cried when I found out that she'd passed away. I'd always harboured this secret hope that I'd meet her someday, since she lived just across the Georgia Strait from me, in Victoria.

Anyway, if you really liked Unless (which I hate to admit, I wasn't as fond of as I am of her other novels), there's an untapped trove of fantastic novels and short stories waiting for you. I'm so vicariously excited! My favourite is Larry's Party, but really, you could pick up any of her books blindfolded and not miss. The Stone Diaries (which won the Pulitzer almost 15 years ago, I think, and really put Shields on the literary map) is excellent. Her short story collection Various Miracles is wonderful; the very first eponymous short story in the collection quite literally took my breath away, it was that amazing.

And since you're a bookish, academic-ish type (like me), I bet you'll also like Swann, which for lack of a better description, is a sort of academic mystery novel. It raises all sorts of questions about how readers engage with and impose themselves on texts, and it does so with an awesome wry humour.

Have fun discovering Shields. I'm so jealous!

1:02 PM  
Blogger Exxie said...

"'Bookish academic?' Why, whatever would give you that impression?" she said, gazing up over the wire-rimmed glasses perched at the end of her nose.

I kid. You have me pegged. Anyhoo - is being Canadian really why we haven't heard more about Shields? That is such a shame, especially since there are other Canadian, female authors that seem to have gotten their dues. Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro come first to mind, though maybe those are the exceptions and, maybe, those are the only ones I can think of. In which case, that is such a shame.

I am quite excited to delve into Shields' work! It's always a bit like Christmas when you discover a writer who's not only talented, but also prolific, because then you get to go back and read everything they've done. I'm sure I'll be scouring used bookstores for her stuff. Thanks for the recommendations on her work - it's nice to have a guide when I hit the stores.

1:13 PM  

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