When her lovely oldest daughter drops out of college to beg on a Toronto street corner wearing a sign that reads GOODNESS, Reta Winters' life loses all happiness. What had been meaningful before now exists under a cloud. Why had 19-year-old Norah done this awful thing? Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head . . . once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life, Reta confides to the reader.
She and her doctor husband Tom, their other two girls and Tom's mother Lois are forever marked by the family tragedy. The question of Norah haunts their lives as it haunts the novel, until the final chapters suggest an answer (as they so often do in Shields' books, like The Stone Diaries, a 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, and Larry's Party).
Reta begins her narrative in the summer of 2000. She is almost 44, an author of light fiction as well as the translator of a prominent French feminist. What makes Unless fun despite its dark shadow is Reta's honest voice, alive to the new possibility of disaster. She gamely works on a sequel to her jolly Elinor Lipman-like novel, My Thyme Is Up, and pretends a normal life. I dust and polish this house of mine so that I'll be able to seal it from damage, she says. Meanwhile, Norah sits on the street corner in the Canadian winter. Reta channels anger into unmailed letters to male scholars who would relegate women to second-class status. The male establishment might be to blame for Norah's passive withdrawal from life. Otherwise, Reta must blame herself.
Shields, married for decades and mother of five children, captures perfectly the texture of family life, with its candid exchanges. She also excels at skewering the publishing world, creating a keen portrait of the incompetent young editor who replaces her kindly one.
Arranged into chapters named after little chips of grammar such as Nevertheless, Unless, Thus, or Not Yet, the novel underlines the unanticipated occurrences that figure so largely in our lives. Reta notes that Unless is used by writers who want to prise open the everyday world and show another plane. Shields herself is such a writer. Anne Morris is an Austin writer.