Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Troubles Are Bigger Than Your Troubles ; A Good Daughter Pursues Virtue and Drives Her Mother to Distraction

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Troubles Are Bigger Than Your Troubles ; A Good Daughter Pursues Virtue and Drives Her Mother to Distraction

Article excerpt

You wouldn't expect it from her, but Carol Shields has written a naughty book. Put your yellow highlighter down: There's no sex, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Stone Diaries" is doing something indecorous here - ribbing our notions of grief, even snickering at what inspires us.

Her latest novel, a mischievous monologue called "Unless," begins with lamentations. Reta Winters once had it all: a loving partner who's a successful doctor, three smart daughters, a beautiful house outside Toronto, and a stimulating career as a translator. She had heard of sadness and pain, of course, but she confesses, "I never understood what they meant."

Until now. "Happiness is not what I thought," she concludes. "Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life." Now, in this new dark world, it's clear to her that the past was filled with "impossibly childish and sunlit days before I understood the meaning of grief."

Who needs a downer like this? That's what's so strange: It's a very funny book. Even in the middle of her anguish, she suddenly looks into the camera and says with deadpan sarcasm, "I am attempting to 'count my blessings.' Everyone I know advises me to take up this repellent strategy."

But nothing can alleviate the pain caused by her daughter's decision to drop out of college and "live a life of virtue." For months now, 19-year-old Norah has been sitting on a street corner, begging, with a sign around her neck that says, "GOODNESS." She won't speak to her parents and friends, or even acknowledge their presence.

For Reta, this calamity calls everything into question, particularly her family's baffling reflex to carry on with normal life. The melody of their pleasant days stays essentially the same; only the beat changes. At night, her husband sets aside his study of trilobites to investigate mental illness. She checks out a few books on the nature of goodness.

Like the friends of Job, everyone offers Reta reasonable, but ultimately unsatisfying counsel: Norah must be depressed; it's just a phase; her hormones are out of balance; she's had a nervous breakdown; she broke up with her boyfriend; she's suffering from post-traumatic stress. All reassure her that it has nothing to do with the quality of her mothering, but Reta knows better.

And then she slides around again and realizes that her daughter must be responding to the powerless condition of women by rejecting the chauvinistic world and retreating into "a kind of impotent piety."

Aha - a cause to fight! Suddenly, her women's group seems more relevant than ever. The gains of the feminist movement were paltry, and the movement itself is stalled. There are letters to write, outrage to be registered (calmly), and corrections to be made (without sounding shrill). …

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