The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Blog Tour Review)

Is it possible to capture the complete course of a life, whether looking from the outside or telling it from the inside? What is set in stone and what is fleeting? These are questions Carol Shields addresses in her 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, which plays with perspective and forms of storytelling as it conveys the extra/ordinary life of Daisy Stone Goodwill Flett. What with the family tree and section of black-and-white photographs, you might expect this to be a family saga; with the chronological chapters proceeding from “Birth” in 1905 to “Death” in the 1990s, you might expect an objective faux-biography. But The Stone Diaries is neither.

The facts are these. Daisy’s mother, Mercy, dies giving birth to her in rural Manitoba. Raised by a neighbor, Daisy later moves to Indiana with her stonecutter father, Cuyler. After a disastrously short first marriage, Daisy returns to Canada to marry Barker Flett. Their three children and Ottawa garden become her life. She temporarily finds purpose in her empty-nest years by writing a “Mrs. Green Thumb” column for a local newspaper, but her retirement in Florida is plagued by illness and the feeling that she has missed out on what matters most.

What makes this surprising life story so remarkable is its unpicking of (auto)biographical authenticity: Shields switches between the first and third person, between Daisy’s point of view and a feigned omniscience. Some sections foreground others’ opinions: Chapter 6 is composed entirely of letters Daisy receives, while Chapter 7 collects short first-person narratives from her children and friends as they speculate on why she has fallen into a depression.

As in Shields’s Happenstance and Larry’s Party, which I’ve also reread this year, I was struck by the role that chance plays in any life:

History indeed! As though this paltry slice of time deserves such a name. Accident, not history, has called us together, and what an assembly we make. What confusion, what a clamor of inadequacy and portent.

Talk of bias, gaps and unreliability undermines the narrative:

Well, a childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction. Which is why you want to take Daisy’s representation of events with a grain of salt, a bushel of salt.

Daisy herself almost disappears from the parts of the book where she is voiceless, consumed by her roles – by the end she is universally known as “Grandma Flett.” This meant that other characters stood out as more memorable to me: Cuyler for his obsessive building of stone monuments and streams of words, Barker for his love of plants and long-deferred sexual fulfillment, Daisy’s friend Fraidy Hoyt for her careful chronicling of fast living, and Magnus, Barker’s father, who lives long past his 100th birthday after his return to the Orkney Islands.

As in Moon Tiger, one of my absolute favorites, the author explores how events and memories turn into artifacts. The meta approach also, I suspect, tips the hat to other works of Canadian literature: in her introduction, Margaret Atwood mentions that the poet whose story inspired Shields’s Mary Swann had a collection entitled A Stone Diary, and surely the title’s similarity to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964) can’t be pure coincidence.

Experiencing the novel again after 14 years, I was impressed by the experimentation but ultimately somewhat detached from the story. It was admiration rather than love; I enjoyed earlier chapters more than the last few. But isn’t that just like life, to keep going past the point where it’s fun? And isn’t that the point, that the meaning you long for may not be there at all?

Marcie (Buried in Print) and I have reread – or, in my case for half of them, read for the first time – six Shields novels together in 2020. I hope I’ll find time to respond to the rest of them in the next few weeks. It has been so rewarding to observe how her themes recur and interlock. How heartening to see that, 17 years after her death, Shields is still being read and remembered, through the World Editions reissues (three more are coming in 2021) and through the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a new $100,000 annual award for North American women’s writing.


The Stone Diaries was reissued in the UK by World Editions on December 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

I was delighted to be invited to help close out the blog tour for The Stone Diaries. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared.

26 responses

  1. I love when that happens: you read a whole bunch of books by the same author and see all the common themes and issues that occur over an over. It makes you wonder what they’re trying to get out of their systems.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Kim! I don’t usually like to read more than a few books by one author in a year, but I’ve made a couple of exceptions this year: for Annabel’s Paul Auster reading challenge earlier in the year, and recently for the Shields books. Next year I’m going to be taking part in Liz’s Anne Tyler readalong, reading all her novels that I own and haven’t read before. Certain authors like Shields and Iris Murdoch (Liz has also done readalongs for her before) really lend themselves to such projects because they often seem to be circling the same themes.

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  2. Thanks so much for the blog tour support x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No problem, Anne! It was a joy to revisit this novel.

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  3. I must read more Shields, I’ve only read one – the one about mermaids – but can hardly remember it sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Republic of Love — I didn’t care for that one so much when I read it in 2014, but I’d be willing to try it again (I think Marcie said it’s her favourite). It’s coming out from World Editions next year, so you and/or I might like to bag a review copy! (Mary Swann, too.) But my favourite as of now is Small Ceremonies, novella length, followed by Larry’s Party.

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      1. It’s one that I really love but I think it might have been Susan who considers it her true favourite. (FWIW, I didn’t love The Republic of Love on a first reading, only on my second.)

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      2. You’re right, it’s Susan for whom it’s a favourite. Interesting — maybe I need a second reading next year!

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  4. I haven’t read this one – I adored The Republic of Love and Swann and really likied Larry’s Party. Ir read Unless too many years ago to remember much about it so might reread.

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    1. We did Unless for book club last year. It wasn’t one of my favourites, but there was a lot to discuss.

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  5. Wonderful review! I need to check out the whole tour. And read more Sheilds. Larry’s Party is first on my list but this sounds really good too. I love your line about going past the point of having fun.

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    1. Thanks! It makes sense for a birth-to-death narrative to drift into more depressing territory with the protagonist’s decline and death … but, yeah, I had more admiration than love for especially the older Daisy.

      I tend to assume Canadians will have read all her stuff 😉 She was the first Canadian author I ever got into.

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  6. It’s years since I read any Carol Shields. Time to revisit …

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    1. You’ll find rereading her very rewarding.

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      1. I’m sure that’s true. I’ll have to ask Father Christmas for a longer day….

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  7. She was a marvelous writer. I need to reread her novels – and I’ve still got her short stories yet to read.

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    1. Her work and Anne Lamott’s have been my rereading highlights this year. I have one volume of Shields’s short stories on my shelf to reread soon, but in 2021 I’m probably going to focus on Anne Tyler instead, for Liz’s readalong.

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      1. That readalong does sound appealing! There are still some Tyler novels I haven’t read yet.

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  8. I have this on my “to read” shelves – it keeps getting pushed to the back.
    Your comment that you appreciated the book rather than loved it is interesting. I find sometimes there are books where I can appreciate the skill of the author but similarly find it hard to relate to the characters or the themes.

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    1. I had this on my “absolute favorites” shelf from my first reading, but took it off after a second. I’ve had that happen with a few books this year; then again, other books I reread have now moved onto the favorites shelf. It just shows my taste changing over time.

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      1. I so seldom get to re-read anything these days

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    2. It takes a conscious effort!

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  9. We’ve had a good time with our readalongs, haven’t we. How fortunate that she makes rereading such a pleasure. I’m thrilled to see these lovely new editions with their introductions and I hope she finds many new and enthusiastic readers; I can imagine that many a lonely person could find a friend, a kindred spirit, in the pages of her novels.

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    1. I think the Atwood foreword may be identical to what was used in the Collected Stories volume over here: a sort of general appreciation written not long after her death.

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  10. […] she decided to leave Saul. Her family background is similar to Daisy’s in Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries: both characters had an overweight mother who didn’t realize she was pregnant until all of a […]

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