Unless

Carol Shields was a masterful writer who allowed the reader to see beauty in the most everyday acts of human life. The book revolves around a year in the life of writer Rita Winters (formerly Summers), a year where grief takes the place of happiness. Norah, her beautiful, nineteen-year- old daughter, drops out of school and chooses a life of homelessness. She sits on a street corner with a sign around her neck bearing a simple word--"goodness." No one knows why.

It is important to mention that at the time of writing this book, Carol Shields was battling advanced breast cancer. She was responding favorably to experimental chemotherapy but knew this would be her last novel. As Maria Russo writes in her article, "Final Chapter" (New York Times, April 14, 2002), "Working on Unless was Shield's first time writing from the other side of happiness and security, and she wanted the book to reflect her hard-earned new understanding of the fragility of happiness."

Yet the book is not without humor. Shields pokes fun at the publishing industry by creating a totally unlikeable and comic editor, Arthur Springer. His very name is indicative of his behavior, for he talks non-stop. Not listening to Rita, he insists that she send him a half-completed manuscript of a book she is writing--My Thyme is Up. He then wants her to re-write it, insisting that he can make a literary work out of light fiction.

When the reader finally learns the cause of Norah's breakdown, it is anti-climatic. The meaning of the book is contained in how Rita and her husband, Tom, learn to deal with the new normal. Chapter headings are significant. Take, for example, the chapter titled, "Unless."

Unless you're lucky, unless you're clear about your sexual direction, unless you're offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair. "Unless" provides you with a trapdoor, a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough (p. 149).

And then, there is the meaning of "goodness." Norah sits on the ground with this word around her neck. Arthur Springer comments that Alicia--the central character in Rita's book--possesses "goodness of soul, of heart" ( p. 160). Given Shields' illness, as well as the fact that Unless was completed in the wake of 9/11, her belief in goodness speaks to the remarkable woman she was.

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