Canada Reads is just a few days away and I have not finished reading all five books. But I have at least read some of all five, so I’m at least not completely making it up when I say I know who I want to win. Today I’m going to jot down a couple points about the fourth book I starting reading, “Unless” by Carol Shields.
I should point out that “started reading” does not mean “finished reading”. I managed to get almost one hundred pages in before I started skimming. I got another fifty pages before I put the book down for good.
The problem with Unless is that almost nothing happens. Most of the book is the main character droning on about her life and what she thinks about things and going off onto tangents about her neighbour or that other thing or something else and blah blah blah blah blah.
I’m not the kind of person who needs action and explosions and dramatic plot twists to stay interested but I do need something other than an internal monologue. I didn’t even feel like I knew anything about this woman before I’m thrown into the deep end of every little thought she has. Why do I care about all this? Sure there allusions to things happening, references to a world in which some kind of story is happening, but it’s completely overwhelmed by her droning on and on.
The major conflict that everybody talks about featuring so heavily in this book, that the woman’s daughter has dropped out of university and spends her days out on the street, barely even comes up. One third of the way through the book and this situation was mentioned maybe twice. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I know if I had to give a synopsis of the book based on what I read, I probably would have said something like “a woman thinks about feminist literature”, but that doesn’t sound as exciting.
It’s no surprise that one of the things people wonder about this book in the context of Canada Reads is whether or not it can pick up support from men. My mom liked it, but probably because she identifies quiet well with the main character. I can’t even say it’s a women’s book, because my sister couldn’t stand to finish reading it either. Well, Lorne Cardinal liked it.
In the end I’m not sure where to rank it. It is tied at the bottom with “The Best Laid Plans” by Terry Fallis. If the two were combined they might have something going for them. Shields’s writing is clearly good and has depth, but the problem is she doesn’t go anywhere with it. “The Best Laid Plans” in contrast is shallow, but at least I still wanted to know what happened next even if I wasn’t really taken in by it. Even though the quality of writing in “Unless” is very good, given a choice between the two I would tell a friend to go with “The Best Laid Plans” instead. It’s lazy summer beach reading, but at least they won’t be bored to tears.
I’ve only just started “The Birth House” by Ami McKay, so I can’t say much about it yet but it is at least better than those other two. I’ll give it a tentative 3rd place. “Essex County” is second, and finally “The Bone Cage” is the one I want to see win it all.
(Links above are to my comments on the other books.)