The Novels of Carol Shields
The art of Carol Shields lies in turning the ordinary lives of her characters into extraordinary pieces of literature. Her skill lies in her ability to surprise within the seemingly mundane.
And her great strength is leaving the reader believing that her characters really do exist. They are all out there in America or Canada, living their individual lives. After reading a handful of her books you suddenly realise that you care deeply about the subjects and what happens to them.
It is easy to understand and care about her characters because they are flawed. More than any other American/Canadian author, Shields has the ability to delve deeply into the psyche of middle class North America.
I have long been a fan of the likes of John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, but none of them have the same ability as Shields to hone in on the battles of everyday existence.
Shields employs variant styles. She leaves us wanting more from the characters, but this serves to underline her great skill in only giving us what she wants us to know about them. So much is left up to the imagination. But above all reality is Shields' ace card. Her characters bleed, they are frail, they suffer, they celebrate and above all they breath.
I first came across her writing through The Stone Diaries. which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize - that well known annual British book award that seems to hype often unreadable pap. The fact that the Stone Diaries did not win probably says more for the book than anything.
Twice I borrowed The Stone Diaries from my local library and on both occasions I gave up on it after a handful of pages - believing that I was finding it difficult to get into. It was one of those books I felt I should read but for which I could summon up little enthusiasm. But as on so many occasions I had jumped to the wrong conclusion.
It is an eminently readable book. I took it on holiday, but started my run through her work with Larry's Party. I started this novel on the plane and became so captivated by its charm that I finished it by the evening.
Larry is an archetypal American. The book traces his life through his early 20s, through two failed marriages (the break-ups of which are dealt with in typically understated matter-of- fact way) and an affair. The novel culminates in a party thrown by Larry and his girlfriend and attended by both his former wives. I won't spoil it by explaining what happens but Shields takes us in several different directions before announcing the outcome of just where the central character's life is leading.
The book is a journey through the male menopause, through the problems of living as a man in today's modern world. Like many of her characters, Larry has a particular skill in an artistic field. On his first honeymoon he comes to England and becomes temporarily lost in Hamden Court's famous maze. Thus begins a love affair with the design and building of mazes - something Larry becomes rather good and rather famous at.
And the mazes become symbols of his life. The mazes represents the twists and turns in Larry's fortunes and the paradox of bringing about the breakdown of his first marriage but providing him with a successful career.
Shields allows us to see only so much of Larry. There seems so much of his character hidden, so many aspects touched on but not fully developed. We never really understand why Larry walks out on his first wife or why his second walks out on him. We feel that these are simply things that happened and part of his evolution. Also his relationship with his son is never fully developed.
With many authors this would be a weakness but not with Shields. She leaves us to interpret the importance of the events taking part in Larry's life. At one point Larry tries on women's clothing but again this is never developed. All these partly developed scenes lead us to piece together what makes Larry tick. We are almost left to make our own minds up with Shields just scattering a few clues for us.
Another of Shields' great skills is the ability to move through the years so effortlessly that we scarcely realise that time is passing, that new relationships are being forged.
After Larry's Party I returned to the Stone Diaries. Again I finished the book in a day. I found it hard to put down. It is a brilliantly fascinating book, full of humour and pathos. The cover describes it as the story of the life of Mercy Goodwill, but it is much more. It is the chronicle of many people sometimes seen through the eyes of Mercy but often we find out so much of their history through their relationship with each other.
Shields has a great ability to underline the complexity of human nature. She looks at characters both through their own views and the way that they are perceived by others and underlines that characters are a complexity of beliefs and ideals.
The Stone Diaries is a kaleidoscope of American social history from the turn of the century to the present day. The more we learn about Daisy the less we seem to know her - this is because she is viewed by so many different characters.
Again the sum is to show a vastly flawed heroine. I also love the way Shields underlines the frailty and even the futility of life - so much of a struggle and so easily snuffed out. She seems always to be begging the question: "Why are we here and would it really matter if we weren't?"
We have a novel of manners, a novel of twists and turns and by the end we still have not unravelled the character of Daisy. Shields teaches us that lives are never simply black and white. How we see ourselves may be totally different to how others view us.
My third Shields holiday read was "Happenstance." This book tells the story of a few days in the life of a husband and wife - separated by the wife's trip to a quilt convention (again the theme of artistry comes through) which threatens her marriage.
The book is divided into two parts which can be read in either order. One tells the story of those days through the eyes of the husband and the other through the eyes of the wife.
The wife has been liberated by breaking temporarily out of her day to day existence. She gets very close to having an affair - it is in some ways an act of defiance and of liberation. Meanwhile the husband stays at home beset with problems which sees a neighbour attempting to commit suicide and his best friend's marriage breaking up.
Again the novel abounds with atmosphere - these are real characters. The book is beautifully under-stated and humour is used to marvellous effect. One of my favourite characters is the 70-something parent who is trying desperately to stay young by reading self improvement books whilst you just know the whole process is just underlining the onset of his senility. Her characters may often border on the dotty but they never become unreal.
Mary Swann is full of many of Shields' re-occurring themes. The book takes the name of a tragic modern day poet, hacked to death by her husband. We look at the poet (Mary Swann) through the eyes of four people. All have different reasons for finding Swann's poetry.
The author's skill comes once again in almost making Mary Swann irrelevant. She is simply the conduit for us to examine the less than perfect lives of these three characters. We learn very little about the tragedy, about why the poet is hacked to death. We learn virtually nothing about her life or why she wrote the poetry. What we do learn about is the struggle of the lives that she has touched.
The book twists and turns and as in Happenstance features a less than perfect symposeum which threatens at times to drift into chaos.
In many ways the Republic of Love is a gentler book, once again focusing on relationships through the eyes of the main characters - Tom who is a nighttime DJ and Fay who meet and fall head over heels. Both have suffered hurt from relationships in the past with Tom having been married four times and Fay having a number of failed live-in partners.
The sharpness of the novel is in the way we learn of the couple's love within the framework of those around them. Fay, like so many of Shields' characters, is an academic, this time looking at Mermaids. Much of the book traces their lives before they met. They meet, they fall in love but just when you think everything is going smoothly there are twists and turns. I am at present reading Small Ceremonies and will update this site shortly.
Small Ceremonies 1976
The Box Garden 1977
Mary Swann 1990
The Republic of Love 1992
The Stone Diaries 1993
Various Miracles 1994
Larry's Party 1997.
The views in the above article are purely personal ones © Peter Steward, 1998.
Other scraps of information I cam across and which need to
be included in the above:
Carol Shields also uses under-statement and humour to
great effect. One of my favourite characters is the 70 something in
Happenstance who is desperately trying to stay young by reading self
improvement books whilst you just know the guy is bordering on senility.
Shields' characters may be dotty but they never lose their reality.
In the ordered righteousness of Hampton Court's maze,
Larry Weller discusses the passions of his life. In Larry's Party, Carol
Shields presents an ironic odyssey from the life of a modern man.
The book runs from 1977 when Larry is 27 years of age and
concludes in 1997 with him aged 47. It therefore takes him from youthful
maturity into middle age when you would expect life to take on a settled
persona. But Larry's life is never settled.