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A LIFE'S WORK

CAROL SHIELDS

 

We take a look back at the work of Carol Shields whose death left a hole in the reading lives of her many devotees. As Josie Barton says below, Shields had an uncanny ability to make the ordinary into the extraordinary and explore the minutiae of everyday lives.

As ever, we are indebted to our Directory reviewers for the following feedback on a selection of Carol Shields’ books. Unfortunately space limits the number of reviews we can publish in our magazine but you will find them all, in their entirety, here.

DUET

by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate)

978-0-00-7171675 | £7.99 pbk | 406pp


DuetThe two stories in Duet were first published in the 1970s as ‘Small Ceremonies’ and ‘The Box Garden’. Although the second is not a sequel, they are described here as ‘companion novels’ because they are about two sisters and several of the characters appear in both stories. I have read several of Carol Shields’ books so was expecting stories of domestic life written in an illuminating and literary style. However, what surprised me about this was how different the two stories are and how much more I enjoyed one than the other.

 

The first is about Judith, the elder sister, who is a biographer and though there is a lot about her relationships with her slightly eccentric husband and her secretive children, the theme seems to be about originality and plagiarism in novels. I admired it as a thought-provoking read but did not get caught up with the characters.

 

In the second story there is much more action, suspense and plot. Charleen is a single mother with issues from her past to be sorted out. In a welcome change from many novels though, she has a sensible, normal son and a kind, practical boyfriend.One of the best-drawn characters is the sisters’ sour mother who had ‘achieved, if not happiness, at least a sort of truncated satisfaction in perpetually revising and reordering her immediate surroundings’.

 

The descriptions of domestic details are always inventive and Carol Shields excels at making you see things in unexpected ways. There is excellent writing in both but I thought the second one was a much more interesting story and a very good read.Reading groups would enjoy discussing and contrasting the two stories.

 

Ann Peet, Carmarthenshire.

 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

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HAPPENSTANCE

by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate)

978-1841154688 | £7.99 pbk | 400pp


HappenstanceBrenda and Jack are an outwardly unremarkable couple in their 40s with two pretty ordinary teenage kids. Their cosy suburban routine is shaken up when Brenda unusually takes off for a few days to a craft fair, leaving historian Jack to get on with writing his book on nineteenth-century Indian trading practices. The circumstances each faces during this time apart are not especially interesting, what is interesting is how, in the absence of their significant other, and outside of the routine of their relationship, Brenda and Jack rely on long-suppressed individual instincts to respond to the circumstances that arise.

 

Doing what she does best Shields examines the inner landscapes of the pair to reveal that, notwithstanding the carefully constructed life they share, each of them continues to be infl uenced by familiar preoccupations of old. The structure of the book – it is written in two parts: The Wife’s Story and The Husband’s Story – cleverly refl ects the interruption in symmetry, and will facilitate discussion.

 

Catherine Meek

 

Personal Read: Three Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

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THE REPUBLIC OF LOVE

by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate)

978-1841154671 | £7.99 pbk | 384pp


The Republic of LoveThis is the story of Tom and Fay, although it is not until exactly halfway through the book that they meet. We become intimate with the two main characters long before they become intimate with each other. We learn of connections between them, ex-partners and spouses and moments when their paths could have crossed, but didn’t.

 

Whilst the story is laid out for the reader on the back cover blurb, there are unexpected incidents within the pages; twists and detours that caught me by surprise.

 

What really makes the book worth reading is the skilful way the author uses words. Sentences are not stuffed with unnecessary adverbs or adjectives but neither are they stark and skeletal – the writer has simply crafted strings of words that serve to both inform and delight the reader.

 

The best part for me was getting to know the characters – the smallest of details revealed such a lot and this just added to my overall enjoyment of the reading.

 

This book is a gentle read that is nevertheless compelling because of the number of life themes woven through the basic storyline. Is it a book for reading groups? Possibly, but for me I think it’s to be enjoyed for itself rather than for any discussion it might provoke.

 

My first experience of reading a work by this author and I will have no hesitation in reading her other works.

 

Donnie Harrison

 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

 

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UNLESS

by Carol Shields

978-0007137695 | £7.99 pbk | 336pp


Unless

Reta Winters is a writer and translator, mother of three teenage girls and married to Tom. Her eldest daughter, Norah, nineteen years old, disappeared and then was seen sitting on a street corner, with a sign round her neck saying ‘Goodness’ and a begging bowl in her lap. So Reta has moved into a different sort of life, ‘visiting’ her daughter each week as part of her normal routine, and discussing with her friends what could be the explanation for her daughter’s apparently sudden withdrawal and passivity.

 

The novel is an exploration of goodness but also – and much more so – a comment upon women’s apparent equality with men, particularly in literary circles. It is written in the first person, including thoughts, conversations and letters (not intended to be posted). It charts the effects of Norah’s desertion upon her whole family. This is similar to Shields’ usual novels which describe so well the minutiae of lives, but this one has more introspection than any of her others.

 

I loved it! I have a daughter who was nineteen at the time I read this and I went through the disbelief, anguish and search for explanations side by side with Reta – very moving.

 

Sue Corbett, Cambs

 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

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Shields’ last novel was deservedly short listed for the Man Booker prize. She creates a protagonist with strong autobiographical elements, but who is not actually Shields. Reta’s life seems idyllic: rewarding work as translator and writer; a happy, long-lasting marriage; three healthy daughters and a lovely house. Unless is about the proximity of darkness to the golden surface.

 

This novel is both accessible and unafraid to engage with the difficulties that trouble many apparently contented lives. Reta’s ‘too good’ eldest daughter, now living on a square of cold pavement, is a manifestation of that. Reta’s weapons against the darkness – housework, humorous fiction and close female friends – will speak to most readers. A recurring, and often humorously treated, theme is the persistent trivialization of women’s lives in world still run by men.

 

Shields is darkly funny about this aspect of the literary world – the book tour, where Reta is constantly asked what her husband thinks of her novel and the new editor who wants to change the focus of her new book onto the male protagonist. Reflections on writing are acute and often dryly comical. Comments such as ‘Introversion is piercingly dull..’ are set against the endless self-examination of the academically successful writer whose memoirs Reta is translating.

 

Above everything, Shield’s use of language and her ability to turn her narrator’s distress into a contemplation of life that is simultaneously funny and painful are what make this book special. The novel is a joy to read alone and bursting with social and character-based themes for groups.

 

 Gill Farnen, Powys

  

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

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VARIOUS MIRACLES

by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate)

978-0007291267 | £9.99 pbk | 260pp


Various MiraclesIn this collection of short stories, Carol Shields turns her magnifying glass on the ‘nothing much’ of various ordinary lives and reveals what is extraordinary, meaningful and sometimes magical about them. As she creates her brief, sympathetic portraits she revisits the themes of the importance of coincidence and accident in steering our lives and also of travel and being away from our ‘normal’ existence.

 

For me, she is effective at conveying the yearning and compromise of middle age and long marriage, (though as a long-married woman of fi fty myself, I wasn’t able to relate to the characters as much as I’d like, mostly I think, because the stories were written in the mid 80s). Her characters start new careers, fall in and out of love, refl ect on their childhoods and their own mortality, make unexpected or unlikely connections with others and above all reveal their humanity.

 

Carol Shields wrote these stories when struggling to get going with Mary Swann and they freed her up to be more playful in her writing. She likened writing them to tap dancing: ‘I can get both feet off the ground.’

 

This probably sums up the overall uplifting effect of reading them.

 

Clare Milne

 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

 

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Carol Shields

 

Carol Shields

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Carol Shields was born in Illinois in 1935. Her interest in reading started when she was 4 and her writing began at primary school. She started college in Indiana in 1953 and was awarded a UN scholarship to study abroad in 1955. She chose Exeter University and during the Christmas holidays joined a study group in Scotland where she met her future husband, Canadian Donald Shields. She graduated from college in 1957 and married the same year, moving to Canada.

 

It was not until after her second child was born that she turned again seriously to her writing, beginning with a published short story, then poetry. Her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published in 1976. Her writing career saw the publication of 11 novels, 3 books of short stories, 2 anthologies, 3 poetry books, collected plays, 1 biography and 1 literary criticism. She was the recipient of many awards as well as winner of prestigious literary prizes, such as the Orange (for Larry’s Party) and the Pulitzer Prize (for The Stone Diaries). She died in 2003.

 

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LARRY'S PARTY

by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate)

978-1857027051 | £7.99 pbk | 354pp


Larry's PartyLarry’s Party tells the story of Larry Weller from the age of 27 to 47, during that time he marries twice, has a son and sets up a successful business designing maze gardens. The novel starts when he accidentally picks up the wrong jacket in a coffee shop. This turns out to be typical of Larry as things seem to happen in his life by accident rather than any planning on his part. He goes to England for his honeymoon and whilst visiting Hampton Court he develops his lifelong obsession with mazes. The novel tells how he struggles through the maze of life taking many wrong turnings and coming to dead ends but reaching the right exit at his party.

 

The book is written in narrative style, however Carol Shields uses the clever device of a series of short novel chapters that almost stand by themselves. In each she develops and tells a little more about Larry. Larry’s son is mentioned as coming to visit him three times a year. Larry is not close to him and although he loves him he cannot communicate with him. I enjoyed the last section, Larry’s Party, as it was interesting to see how his ex-wives reacted to each other.

 

I think that book groups will find this an interesting read. It has many themes love, obsession, divorce, and relationships so there is scope for lots of discussion.

 

Olive Seymour

 

Personal Read: Three Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

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THE STONE DIARIES

by Carol Shields

978-1857022254 | £6.99 pbk | 384pp


The Stone DiariesThe Stone Diaries is a work of fi ction, however with its subtle use of fi rst- and third-person narrative, the novel reads like a memoir. The essence of the twentieth century is expertly captured in a series of beautifully written chapters that depict Daisy Goodwin’s entire life from the cradle to the grave. Daisy’s precipitous birth in 1905, results in the death of her mother, Mercy. This event has far-reaching consequences, not just on Daisy’s own life, but also on the lives of those associated with her upbringing.

The novel is easily readable, each chapter brings to life the social changes affecting Daisy and those around her, whilst the clever use of diary entries, letters, recipes and newspaper stories, bring into focus the whole social strata of the twentieth century. There is a sense of purpose to each cleverly written section, and an awareness of order, which makes for fascinating reading. The characterisation truly comes to life and blends quite seamlessly within the narrative, made all the more interesting by the clever use of a genealogy chart, and an array of charming photographs.

 

Carol Shields is one of my favourite contemporary authors. I think she has an uncanny ability to make the ordinary into the extraordinary, and her exploration of the minutiae of people’s lives is expertly captured in The Stone Diaries. It would be a pleasure to be able to discuss this book as part of a reading group read.

 

Josie Barton, Wigan

 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

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The novel provides a portrait of 20th-century life in North America. Written in diary format, it traces the life of one seemingly unremarkable woman while simultaneously giving a picture of 20th century North American life. It follows the story of Daisy Goodwill Flett, who is born in 1905 and lives into the 1990's. The book has a family tree and pages of photos at the front, which left me wondering whether this book is autobiographical.

 

The diaries move from decade to decade following the path of Daisy’s life from her unfortunate beginnings through her first marriage to when she becomes a mother. The ordinariness of the story is what drew me to the book, proving you can have a fulfilling life without doing anything extraordinary.

 

I really enjoyed this book even the poignant ending. I read it last year ago for my book group and we found we had plenty to discuss and there were varied opinions about the diary format and the largely unremarkable life of the diarist – but personally I loved it.

 

Carolyn Fraser, Ipswich

 

 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

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COLLECTED STORIES

by Carol Shields (HarperPerennial)

978-0007192069 | £10.99 pbk | 608pp


Collected Stories

Short stories have the ability to capture a mood or a moment in time and Shields had the ability to crystallise such events. The writing is almost poetical in some stories and some stories point out the ridiculous in everyday life. Women feature as the main characters in the majority of her stories: such as the nameless woman who has so many invitations to exhibitions, parties and events that she preferred to stay at home and read a book, to the elderly lady who only found herself when her husband died and she began working as a demonstrator for Kitchen Kult and ended up as Assistant Area Manager, or couples who have to re-negotiate their relationships following illness, jealousy or just plain boredom with each other. This is a fi ne collection with every word earning its place and I would read one story and would have to read another then another. Carol Shields once said that ‘reading can be part of your life and there will be times when it is the best part’ and I felt this to be true whilst reading this book.

 

Christine Wooton

 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

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MARY SWANN

by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate)

978-1841154206 | £9.99 pbk | 320pp 

 

Mary SwannIn this novel, the eponymous Mary Swann was a housewife in rural Canada, who suffered at the hands of a brutal husband who finally killed her. Just before her death, she had completed and submitted to an editor her first every collection of poems. The novel is divided into five distinct sections; the first four being narrated each by a different character, and the final section being entitled 'The Swann Symposium'. The four different people through whom we learn about Mary Swann are a feminist writer, a biographer, a local librarian and the publisher of her poems. They tell us how they are connected to Mary Swann, and then the final section sees these people attend the first Symposium about her work.

 

I found this a difficult read, and I didn't find myself engrossed in or pulled into this novel unfortunately; it was not for me, and I struggled to get much out of it, though I'm sure having said that, that others may appreciate the style and subject matter of it more then I did. Reading groups could discuss how Mary Swann comes across through the different depictions given to the reader by the four characters, and what more they would have liked to have known about her that the book does not reveal.

 

 

Lindsay Healy

 

Personal Read: 2 Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

 

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