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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: Unless

Not only did the February meeting of the BPL Monday book discussion meet a week late due to President's Day (we met on 2/27 instead of 2/20) but I am a week late getting this report done.  So yes, it is March, but here is the February BPL book discussion report.

This month we read Unless by Carol Shields. This was the final novel by the Pulitzer Prize winning author before her death from breast cancer in 2003. Here is the summary from the publisher
For all of her life, 44 year old Reta Winters has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light 'summertime' fiction. But this placid existence is cracked wide open when her beloved eldest daughter, Norah, drops out to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads 'GOODNESS.' Reta's search for what drove her daughter to such a desperate statement turns into an unflinching and surprisingly funny meditation on where we find meaning and hope.
Warmth, passion and wisdom come together in Shields' remarkably supple prose. Unless, a harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family's anguish and healing, proves her mastery of extraordinary fictions about ordinary life.
Unless provided a unique opportunity for our group.  As I always tell my students, sometimes you have a better discussion when people dislike a book than when people generally like it.  As you will see below, overall, we disliked or were "so-so" on the book, but I am happy to say, we unanimously loved the discussion we had about the book.  In fact, I would say that if you have an established group that can let their personal feelings for a book go and focus on what can be discussed about it, this book is a great choice.  But if your group does not have trust in the leader to take them through a book they did not enjoy, it could be a disaster.

Here are the highlights of our comments and discussion:

  • You know how we start by now.  3 people voted that they liked the book, 9 voted for disliked and 4 (including me) said so-so.
  • I always try to ask the minority to go first, this ensures that they have a chance to have their say.  One "liked" voter said she found it very thought provoking.  She liked looking at what happens in a family when something goes wrong; how they solve their problems.
  • Another person liked the novel because it was "a writer's book." There were entire sections that did nothing but contemplate the place of a writer.
  • Some so-so people said that Reta annoyed them, but over time they appreciated that we were watching her unravel, that the book was all over the place because she was all over the place.  
  • The style of this book is highly unusual. She was having a small breakdown and the book reads like that.  The plot is not really advanced for most of the book.  The "story" here, following why Norah is now living on the street is hardly addressed.  In fact, it is tip-toed around until the last 20 pages and then all wrapped up pretty quickly.
  • This novel, while missing a traditional plot, it also not heavy on character development.  We get a lot of Reta, but not much of anyone else.  While Reta is self obsessed, we know her daughters, husband, and mother-in-law are all hurting, but Reta is too selfish to even ask them how they are feeling.  This really bothered a lot of us.  We were craving their point of view.
  • To take it a step further, many of us in the group are mothers, and as mothers, we completely disagreed with Reta's handling of Norah's behavior. It was obvious that Norah was having some kind of mental breakdown of her own; she was hurting, yet no one asked her why.  She needed help and intervention, but everyone seemed to want to give her space.  Reta was too passive for us mothers. 
  • We all enjoyed Shield's use of letters that Reta writes to other authors she encounters while going through this difficulty time to advance the story.  We learn that Reta does not mail them, but we see her struggling to come to terms with her daughter's choices, her own writing, and even her place in the world.
  • Reta talks a lot about feminism in this novel.  She works as the translator for a renowned French feminist.  She spends hours with her group of female friend writers talking about inequality and trying not to let being a woman define who they are.  But then she lets it define her and her daughter.
  • Talking about the feminism Shields was trying to stir up in this novel led us to a long discussion  of being raised as strong women no matter our age.  Many of the older women (70+) talked about examples of feminists in their families going back to their mothers and grandmothers.
  • Although we all thought the ending was a little rushed, we had a lot of say about it. I don't want to give much away, but the reason why Norah decided to beg on the street seemed to come out of nowhere.  That combined with the visit by Reta's new editor and the opening up of the mother-in-law, led to much discussion.
  • The mother-in-law, Lois.  Her story taught us the importance of asking.  It is not enough to only listen. Sometimes you need to ask.  A question someone brought up that got us thinking, "If you don't ask do you really care?"
  • We talked a bit about Reta's transition from translator for Danielle to novelist on her own over the course of the novel  We discussed the difference in the two jobs and how the changed showed Reta's growth.
  • This led to a longer discussion about the character of Danielle.
  • Someone said how much they loved how this novel has sentences every now and then that you could pull out on their own and contemplate outside of the confines of the novel.  A few of these were shared.
  • We ended by quoting the portions of the novel where Shields has Reta talk about the word "Unless."  All of the chapters are named after adverbs, but Reta has much to say about "unless" in particular.  Although we enjoyed reading those lines, we were a bit upset that the title's meaning was so clearly laid out for us.  We like to talk about the title and what it could mean.  Here, there is not much more to say that Shields didn't write already.
Readalikes:  There are a couple of titles I thought of when reading Unless that might be a good suggestion.  First, I think Nick Hornby's How to Be Good is a better read for a reader who likes character and story but still wants to look at the idea of someone changing as their strive for "goodness."  Also, if you are looking for a book about a woman writer going through a difficult time, I would also suggest The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus by the poet Sonya Sones, which I read here.

Those are my personal off the top of my head suggestions, but after doing a bit of research, I would suggest:
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: read why here
  • Good Harbor by Anita Diamant which deals with female friendships and familial turmoil.
  • The Seven Sisters by fellow Canadian Margaret Drabble.  Here a newly divorced woman is learning to be single.  Like Unless it is thoughtful and contains a lot of looking back.
  • Many people compare Unless to Mrs. Dalloway.  I am going to trust them, but I like the Woolf book even less than the Shields.
Back to the regular schedule on the third Monday of the month in March when we meet to discuss The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.

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