Unless - Carol Shields

Reta Winters has many reasons to be happy, among them, her three almost grown daughters, her twenty-six year relationship with their father, her work translating the larger-than-life French intellectual and feminist Danielle Westerman, and the modest success she has had with her own novel. Then one day her eldest daughter, Norah, disappears and ends up mute and begging on a Toronto street corner. Around Norah's neck is a hand-lettered sign reading GOODNESS. And Reta, full of sudden anguished insight into the injustices of the gendered world, must tackle the mystery of her daughter's message. 

~from back cover



Retah (pronounced Reetah) is the wife of a doctor and mother of three pretty much grown daughters. Her own work has her translating French manuscripts, as well as working on her own writing. She has a modest amount of success / fame in her own right, professionally, and lives a pretty cush life thanks to her husband's income. Everything, from an outsider's perspective, seems to be going swimmingly for Retah. Solid marriage, emotionally well-balanced, happy daughters, professional success. That is, until her daughter Norah disappears from college, reappearing later as a homeless woman on the streets of downtown Toronto, holding a donation bowl and wearing a cardboard sign that only says GOODNESS. The back cover synopsis describes Norah as mute, but it's not actually full-on muteness, only being selective about who she speaks to and what she says. 


Through talking briefly with Norah and others who have had interactions with her, Retah learns that Norah's decision to become voluntarily homeless = part protest on the world, part trying to make sense of her convoluted emotions when it comes to human interaction and relationships. Retah also learns that through the donation bowl, Norah also divvies up 9/10ths of whatever she makes each day to other homeless people, keeping only enough to buy a small amount of food or necessary supplies. 


Through Retah's memories, the reader gets to know more about Norah and what happened in her life to get her to her current situation. How is a girl from a cushy, privileged life pushed to voluntarily commit herself to the streets of Toronto indefinitely? This was a character study I was curious to know more about! Norah's story is the sole reason I wanted to get into this book. Sadly, Shields makes her more of a background character. Something to prop up the day to day musings of mother Retah. Sure, we get Retah giving us little bits of Norah's story -- like how even as a child Norah was extremely empathetic to the stories of everyone around her, always drawn to wildlife -- but largely the focus seemed to be on Retah's life. Her musings on marriage and motherhood, her thoughts on her writing career, feminist rants on the struggles of female writers having their work shadowed by male writers.


I'm not saying Retah's rants don't touch on some good points -- they do. My frustration lay more in how long these monologues went on. For me, it started to veer a bit into "beating a dead horse" territory. There were even times when Retah would go on about things in her life leaving her disgruntled, that struck me as whining from a privileged place, making a mountain out of a first world problems molehill. Just one "for instance" here -- she seems to spend a good amount of time talking about all these dreams and plans she had for Norah, disappointed that Norah just walks away from college (essentially ruining Retah's master plan) but then comes back with "all I ever wanted was for Norah to be happy." WHY do parents SO like to end on that line after they tear into you about how you're f-in up your life because you're not taking the path they had in mind for you?!


So in short, I was bummed that there was not more of Norah to the plot. Left me wanting, because I think there could've been something powerful in delving more into that character. I was left pretty bored and annoyed with Retah as a whole. Also, those letters she writes to others periodically that are stuck between chapters -- those letters added nothing to the story for me. Just struck me as superfluous blatherings. 


But points to the best WTF sentence in the whole book that gave me a good, solid, confused laugh: "In France, it's thought that menstruating women are incapable of making a good mayonnaise."


I'm sorry, what?!