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UNLESS by Carol Shields Kirkus Star

UNLESS

By Carol Shields

Pub Date: May 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-00-714107-6

From Pulitzer-winning Shields (The Stone Diaries, 1994, etc.), a tale about existential disarray that’s spiked with feminist outrage and leavened with womanly wit.

Until her daughter Norah begins living on the streets of Toronto in the spring of 2000, Reta Winters “thought tragedy was someone not liking my book.” She and physician Tom Winters have been together for 22 years (although, mildly nonconformist children of the 1970s, they never married), and Reta has a modest literary reputation as author of a comic novel, My Thyme Is Up. Shortly after Norah leaves home, Reta starts a sequel, and we find her grieving and “at the same time plotting what Alicia will say to Roman” in Thyme in Bloom. Art sustains Reta, but its self-appointed interpreters infuriate her, and she writes letters to pundits who have ignored women’s contributions to culture, an omission Reta gropingly feels has something to do with her daughter’s turmoil. But because she’s too suspicious of generalities to trust “the self-pitying harridan who has put down such words,” she never mails them. Her first-person telling of all this, often quietly heartbreaking, is just as often bitingly humorous. Much of the fun comes at the expense of Reta’s bombastic New York editor, who professes to find Big Issues in what Reta sees as light fiction but who proves able, in the story’s most blistering development, to see Alicia as a stepping-stone to Roman’s development. Typical of Shields’s unerring pacing, this nasty revelation is followed by a crisis revealing why Norah became a street person. Reta’s observations are so shrewd throughout, each detail so perfectly placed, that readers may not notice that the editor is the only other truly three-dimensional character.

The philosophical questions don’t emerge with the same brilliance as Shields’s portrait of the writer or her modest claim for the importance of a female perspective on tragedy. Still, there’s enough here to maintain her claim as one of our most gifted and probing novelists.