My troubles are bigger than your troubles

A good daughter pursues virtue and drives her mother to distraction

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).

Shields has captured something remarkably subtle and unsettling. Reta's grief would be so much cleaner if she weren't cursed with such ironic self-awareness, with moments of realizing that's she's a "self-pitying harridan." How can she speak of her bottomless agony while translating the work of a Holocaust survivor? How can she stomach the embarrassment of reading her own "whining melodramatic scrawl"?

On the other side, she can't keep her own wit from corroding every moment of inspiration. No sooner does she sigh with teary relief than she realizes such moments are "fake jewels – twin babies in snowsuits" – that allow her "to be tipped from skepticism to belief. "

Even as she begins studying virtue, she feels compelled to note: "I am not, by the way, unaware of the absurdity of believing one can learn goodness through the medium of print. Bookish people, who are often maladroit people, persist in thinking they can master any subtlety so long as it's been shaped into acceptable expository prose."

As a writer, Reta can't resist the reflex to stand outside herself, analyzing, calling into question every motive, pushing her emotions and thoughts in one direction or another just to see where they lead.

She also begins writing a comic romance, knowing full well that she's retreating from the stubborn problems of her real life to enter a fictive world under her control. But how, this wily novel asks, can a placebo work if you know it's a placebo? What can keep the witty, self-aware person from ricocheting between gassy inspiration and bitter shame? In her own sophisticated way, Shields has sneaked a whoopee cushion under the soft pillow of self-pity.

Nothing is more surprising, though, than the story's ending. In a weird translation into comedy – with some brilliant commentary on the publishing world – the novel suddenly wraps everything up neatly. Of course, Reta notices this tidy denouement, too. After all, throughout the story she's one step ahead of us: "Novelists," she admits, "are always being accused of indulging in the artifice of coincidence."

Since we first met her, Reta's taunts have trained us to be skeptical of all such artifice, but, come on, Shields suggests with a wink, everybody needs to rest sooner or later. And ultimately, what other indulgence can we enjoy more than the wonderful coincidence of being alive together? This is one of those books that make you regret that reading is a solitary pleasure.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to

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