The Next Chapter·Like This? Love That

If you liked Jack by Marilynne Robinson, you'll love Unless by Carol Shields

The Next Chapter columnist Donna Bailey Nurse finds a Canadian counterpart to the international novel.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a writer and columnist. (McClelland & Stewart, Mallory Drumm, Vintage Canada)

Jack by American novelist Marilynne Robinson is a New York Times bestseller and was one of former U.S. president Barack Obama favourite books of 2020.

It is Robinson's fourth in the Gilead sequence, preceded by Gilead, Home and Lila. It focuses on John Ames "Jack" Boughton, the troubled son of Robert Boughton and explores truth and the nature of inequality. 

The Next Chapter columnist Donna Bailey Nurse has read Jack and says if you enjoyed that novel you should check out the Canadian novel Unless by the late American Canadian author Carol Shields.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Summers Robinson is an American novelist and essayist. (McClelland & Stewart, Alec Soth/Magnum Photos)

"Jack in the novel is the son of Reverend Boughton and the godson of Reverend Ames. But Jack is sort of a ne'er-do-well. He has brought a lot of shame on the family. Jack has realized what a social menace he's become. He doesn't want to be a social menace. He wants to be good. He says to himself that the only way he can keep myself out of trouble is to do no harm, and that's to have nothing to do with anybody. 

Robinson is a formidable intellect. She has a profound faith that really informs her novels and she writes superbly about race.

"Jack meets this Black woman named Della. This is in 1948 St. Louis, which is a very segregated place after the war. They fall in love and, of course, harm is going to come from that.

"Robinson is a formidable intellect. She has a profound faith that really informs her novels and she writes superbly about race. And so all these things come together in this book."

Unless by Carol Shields

Unless is a novel by Carol Shields, pictured above in 2002 after being presented with the Companion of the Order of Canada Award. (Vintage Canada, Richard Lam/Canadian Press)

"This is the story of Reta Winters, a contented wife, a mother of three daughters and also a writer who's had a successful first novel. 

"Reta's life is great — but then things fall apart. Her eldest daughter Norah, who is a university student, suddenly opts out and refuses to come home.

In both books, the respective characters of Jack and Norah use the concept of goodness as a reason to step away from society.

Norah refuses to speak to even her sisters and friends. She sits in silence on a street corner with a sign around her neck reading, 'Goodness.'

"What Reta decides is troubling her daughter is that, as a young woman, Norah has come to the awareness that although women are very much encouraged to be good, they are not encouraged to be great. 

"In both books, the respective characters of Jack and Norah use the concept of goodness as a reason to step away from society."

Donna Bailey Nurse's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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