Wednesday, December 29, 2010

BOOK: Unless by Carol Shields

Unless by Carol Shields, 322 pages

Orange January (shortlist 2003); Canada Reads 2011; 4th Canadian CBC

Linda Holmes, of NPR, wrote a great article in the summer, in the middle of a Franzen fracas, about why chick lit is a bad title. If you recall, Johnathan Franzen's summer release, Freedom, was the darling of all the literati. (Admission: haven't read it, have no plans to read it, even though my Google Reader is full up of fans of his books.) Maureen Johnson also wrote a much linked article about the dearth of attention to woman writers, among other things. I so wish Carol Shields had been around to add her two cents worth, since I believe she had much to say about male/female writers and their books. In fact, she wrote about it in her last published book, Unless. In 2002.

Reta Winters is a forty something writer, with every reason to be happy. Except, her nineteen year old daughter has suddenly dropped out of life, and is on a quest for goodness by begging on a street corner. Reta is given lots of comparisons about why this isn't so bad, but for her, it's everything. Shields starts the book off slowly, and I certainly felt the higher level of reading than I often read, but I felt stretched, in a very good way. With an author as the main character, there is lots of navel-gazing, and Reta even references herself as navel-gazing within the book, mocking herself for being an author and writing about writing. Part of the way Reta deals with her sadness and concern over her daughter, who she believes felt marginalized in a male dominated world, is to write letters pointing out the lack of female writers referenced in articles she's read.

Unless is a big story of identification told in one woman's experience. Hey, isn't that what male writer's do? But when women do it, it's called chick lit or a story for women. When men do, they are describing the life experience and get awards. The best, or rather most infuriating part of the book, is when Reta's editor decides her sequel book should be a big 'literature' book. She'll just have to switch the focus from the female character's search for goodness  to the male character's search for greatness. Yes, Carol Shields goes there. Rock on sister.

Perfect book to start off Orange January a little early. Bonus points for me since Unless is nominated for Canada Reads 2011. I can't wait to hear this book debated in February.