Details: (c) Carol Shields 2002; Pub 2003 Fourth Estate; ISBN 0-00-713769-9
Verdict: Unless is a generally good light character novel spoilt by trying to be too literary.
Reasons for reading it: I wanted something thoroughly realist to follow The Dragon Waiting, and this was on my to-read pile.
How it came into my hands: My mother lent it to me, originally for the journey home but I ended up being so tired that I only got through one (short) book in the 8-hour trip.
My mother and I have got into the habit of lending eachother books about how painful parenting is. Anyway, Unless is about an apparently perfect daughter of a middle-class family suddenly deciding to run away from home and university and become a beggar. It's mostly the account of the pain this causes, particularly to Norah's mother, to the extent that the happy ending feels rather tacked on.
In this respect it's very reminscent of Philip Roth's American Pastoral, though the major difference is that Reta Winters, the mother who is the narrator of Unless, is a much more likeable character than Roth's protagonist. Not that that's saying much, since just about every protagonist I've ever come across (barring possibly Thomas Covenant) is more likeable than Roth's narrator. However, Winters shares with the Roth character the feature of having an enormous chip on her shoulder about how much she's been discrimated against. Roth is convinced that all his problems stem from the fact that he Jewish rather than "athletic, blond and Aryan", and Winters is convinced that her problem (unlike Roth's boorish, self-obsessed narrator, she really only has one, namely her daughter's desperate behaviour) is caused by sexism. And not any actual sexist discrimination against either her or her daughter, but the trivial sexism of people who make lists of the great and good which are mainly or entirely male.
As a character portrait Unless works quite well. I got a strong impression of Reta as a person and really did feel a lot of sympathy with her. Her relationships with her daughters, her husband, her mentor, her husband, her mother-in-law and her friends are really vividly drawn. However, Unless is let down by trying to be too clever. The language is overblown; sometimes it works, there are one or two good lines, but mostly it's just too mannered to rank as really excellent prose. There's absolutely no need to use prepositions as chapter headings; it's nothing but pretentious. The clever-clever self-referential stuff is quite cute, but overdone to the point where it's just irritating: ooh look, it's a book written by a midlist Canadian feminist writer about a midlist Canadian feminist writer, isn't that clever and original!
Not only is Reta constantly griping about how unfair life is to women, but the narrative is constructed to support her viewpoint. As a result Unless feels like a heavy-handed morality tale; the polemic badly gets in the way of the story, and it's not even direct polemic, but dropping really blatant hints. The self-referential bit comes up again; there's a whole swathe of stuff about people making certain judgements about Winters' novels simply because she's female, with the very strong undertone that if you make similar judgements about Unless itself you're an evil misogynist. The trouble is, the unfair criticisms people make about Winters' writing do in fact apply to Unless: it has the elements of a very good if largely frothy relationship novel of the sort whose readership is entirely made up of women from similar backgrounds to its protagonist. But it's trying to be Serious Literature, and tackle Issues like the meaning of suffering and feminist politics. I couldn't disagree more with the view that women can't write Serious Literature, but the fact of the matter is that Carol Shields can't. Or at least she hasn't succeeded in doing so in this book.
As a description of human lives being shattered by random misfortune, Unless is moving despite being relatively superficial. However, the political point that it is trying to make was made much better by papersky in a hundred word LJ post. And frankly, Unless would be a lot better if it didn't bother with the point it labours so badly.