Sunday, April 6, 2014

Unless by Carol Shields: a review

“Unless” by Carol Shields is the story of a woman, Reta, who faces a crisis when her oldest daughter, Norah, who decides to drop out of college and panhandle on the street corner in Toronto. Norah says nothing and only has a sign which reads GOODNESS. This book would be Ms. Shields’ last book as she passed away on July 16, 2003 after a battle with breast cancer at the age of 68.
The story opens in the summer of 2000. Reta, a writer in her mid-forties, lists her writing accomplishments and the life events that occurred alongside them. The birth of her children and her friendship and working relationship with fellow writer Danielle Westerman. Her husband, Tom, is a doctor. It was confusing as to what type of doctor Tom is. She writes in one chapter: “Tom, who is a family physician and has a broad scientific background” and throughout the rest of the book, Tom is researching trilobites, a fossil group of extinct marine arthropods. Why would a family physician be studying trilobites? Is this a hobby? Ms. Shields doesn’t make this clear. The main story is Reta’s mission to figure out why her daughter, Norah, would drop out of college and panhandle on the street. Her mission as well as her writing a second novel. Reta begins to realize that women authors aren’t named among the great minds and resents her editor when he suggests that men protagonists make for better sellers.
“Unless” was a very difficult book to read. First, Reta is very unsympathic. As I read, I couldn’t help but realize that I didn’t care about her, her writing or her mission to have women author be counted among the greats. Ms. Shields’ assumption that women seen as good to write “domestic” subjects such as romance novels and that women writers have to have a male protagonist. When she is clearly ignoring many women authors who write female protagonists outside the domestic scene. For example, Patricia Cornwell and her Dr Kay Scarpetta. Second, Ms. Shields likes to use big and obscure words with little clue as to their meaning. I have a fairly good vocabulary and if I don’t know the words I’m usually good at figuring them out by the sentences around them or I look the word up just to clarify my understand. However, in this book, there were 4 words that were so obscure that the sentences around them did not help in their understanding. For example, lachrymose was used in this sentence, “’She is such a lachrymose woman.’ I once heard a man say that disdainfully about his sister; he might have been talking about me in my present state.” For those who don’t know, lachrymose means to cause tears or cry often. What about that sentence helps the reader understand the meaning if he or she doesn’t already know? Third, Reta’s “feminist” mission irritated me. It was a constant borage of “what about women?” The character’s letters to various authors and even one man’s obituary about their omission of women authors was overdone. Reading it, I was thinking “Ok, I get it. Women don’t get the same acknowledge as men.”
The letter to the man who just died was a little creepy and just wrong. The only aspect of this book that I did like was the reason behind Norah’s crisis. The author does give a little foreshadowing but if the reader isn’t reading closely, he or she will miss it. Unfortunately, the rest of the book, the characters are so bland that I kept looking and saying “how many more pages?” and when I do that I know it’s not a good book.
Before writing my review, I wanted to get the impression of other readers, in case I was missing something about the book. I went to and while those who liked the book were already fans of Ms. Shields, many of the reviewers had the same problems I did. One reviewer wrote “I didn’t like the idea that flowed thru this book that women are oppressed and of no significance to men.” Another wrote, “self-congratulatory and trite.” Lastly, a reviewer wrote, “The character was too self-absorbed.”
“Unless” was a boring book about a woman struggling with her life, her writing and places the blame on the men who do not acknowledge the accomplishments of women.