Unless by Carol Shields. Random House 2002.
Nancy Pearl is reputed to be the only librarian who has her own action figure. She has written books about what to read: Book Lust and its sequel. She also does author interviews, which you can see online at Seattle Channel. Like many dedicated readers, Nancy found it difficult not to finish reading a book, even when she really wasn’t enjoying it. She was finally able to give herself permission to stop slogging through books she didn’t care about by invoking her Rule of 50. If you reach the bottom of Page 50 and aren’t enjoying the book, put it down and move on. As she moved beyond the age of 50, she realized the Rule was incomplete and added to it:
In a flash of, if I do say so myself, brilliance, I realized that my Rule of 50 was incomplete. It needed an addendum. And here it is: When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book. As the saying goes, “Age has its privileges.”
I mention this because I was thinking about Pearl’s Rule of 50 recently. I found myself struggling to “get into” Carol Shields’ Unless. I was reading it because it was one of the five books shortlisted for Canada Reads 2011. If I had been following Pearl’s Rule of 50, I wouldn’t have finished Unless, I have to admit. In fact, if I were using a Rule of 100, I wouldn’t have finished Unless. I was past the halfway mark of this book before I started to feel committed.
I would have thought it would have been easier. After all, Carol Shields is a Pulitzer Prize winning author (for The Stone Diaries). I also share quite a bit in common with Reta Winters, the narrator of Unless. Like Reta, I have 3 daughters, born about the same time as Reta’s fictional daughters. And Reta lives in an old farmhouse in a rural area west of Toronto, as I once did. Reta’s life passage, however, has been a more comfortable one. Married to a medical doctor, she enjoys a well-to-do life style. She has a successful career of her own as a translator and author. She has good friends, both close to home and in far-flung parts of the world. And yet, she finds herself suddenly struggling with a period of great unhappiness when her oldest daughter, in her second year at university, abruptly quits school and takes up life as a street person, sitting on the corner of Bathhurst and Bloor with a hand-lettered sign reading GOODNESS around her neck.
Unless is a contemplative novel as Reta examines her own life and seeks to understand her daughter’s motivation. What is goodness, anyway? Along the way, Reta deals with her literary agent, interacts with the elderly woman for whom she has translated novels, makes supper for her family and mother-in-law. She concludes that perhaps Norah has come to an understanding that, as a woman, she is largely excluded from greatness, even now still primarily the reserve of men. Women are good, not great.
Any mother can understand Reta’s anguish over her daughter’s situation, and somewhere around the middle of the book, I finally settled in to share Reta’s journey. When I finished the novel, I was glad that I had stuck with it and kept reading and had the satisfaction of meeting Reta and getting to know her. In the end, Shields’ erudite writing and dry wit won me over.