It’s pure happenstance that I started reading Carol Shields’s work in 2006.
2005: When I first returned to England for my MA program at Leeds, I met a PhD student who was writing a dissertation on contemporary Canadian women writers. At that point I could literally name only one – Margaret Atwood – and I hadn’t even read anything by her yet.
2006: Back in the States after that second year abroad, living with my parents and killing time until my wedding, I got an evening job behind the circulation desk of the local community college library. A colleague passed on four books to me one day. By tying them up in a ribbon, she made a gift out of hand-me-downs: The Giant’s House, The Secret History, and two by Shields: Happenstance and The Stone Diaries. I’ve gone on to read most or all of the books by these authors, so I’m grateful to this acquaintance I’ve since lost touch with.
Starting in June this year, I joined Marcie of Buried in Print in reading or rereading six Shields novels. She’s been rereading Shields for many years, and I benefited from her insight and careful attention to connections between the works’ characters and themes during our buddy reads. I’d treated myself to a secondhand book binge in the first lockdown, including copies of three Shields novels I’d not read before. We started with these.
Small Ceremonies (1976)
Shields’s debut ended up being my surprise favorite. A flawless novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes in 180 pages. Judith is working on a third biography, of Susanna Moodie, and remembering the recent sabbatical year that she and her husband, a Milton scholar, spent with their two children in Birmingham. High tea is a compensating ritual she imported from a dismal England. She also brought back an idea for a novel. Meanwhile family friend Furlong Eberhardt, author of a string of twee, triumphantly Canadian novels, is casting around for plots.
What ensues is something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life. Specific links to her later work include a wonderful dinner party scene with people talking over each other and a craft project.
The Box Garden (1977)
The companion novel to Small Ceremonies is narrated by Judith’s sister Charleen, a poet and single mother who lives in Vancouver and produces the National Botanical Journal. I imagined the sisters representing two facets of Shields, who had previously published poetry and a Moodie biography. Charleen is preparing to travel to Toronto for their 70-year-old mother’s wedding to Louis, an ex-priest. Via flashbacks and excruciating scenes at the family home, we learn how literally and emotionally stingy their mother has always been. If Charleen’s boyfriend Eugene’s motto is to always assume the best of people, her mother’s modus operandi is to assume she’s been hard done by.
The title comes from the time when a faithful Journal correspondent, the mysterious Brother Adam, sent Charleen some grass seed to grow in a window box – a symbol of thriving in spite of restrictive circumstances. I thought the plot went off in a silly direction, but loved the wedding reception. Specific links to Shields’s later work include a botanical hobby, a long train journey, and a final scene delivered entirely in dialogue.
A Celibate Season (1991)
“We’re suffering a communication gap, that’s obvious.”
This epistolary novel was a collaboration: Blanche Howard wrote the letters by Jocelyn (“Jock”), who’s gone to Ottawa to be the legal counsel for a commission looking into women’s poverty, while Shields wrote the replies from her husband Charles (“Chas”), an underemployed architect who’s keeping the home fire burning back in Vancouver. He faces challenges large and small: their daughter’s first period versus meal planning (“Found the lentils. Now what?”). The household starts comically expanding to include a housekeeper, Chas’s mother-in-law, a troubled neighbor, and so on.
Both partners see how the other half lives. The misunderstandings between them become worse during their separation. Howard and Shields started writing in 1983, and the book does feel dated; they later threw in a jokey reference to the unreliability of e-mail to explain why the couple are sending letters and faxes. Two unsent letters reveal secrets Jock and Chas are keeping from each other, which felt like cheating. I remained unconvinced that so much could change in 10 months, and the weird nicknames were an issue for me. Plus, arguing about a solarium building project? Talk about First World problems! All the same, the letters are amusing.
This was the first novel I read by Shields. My Penguin paperback gives the wife’s story first and then you flip it over to read the husband’s story. But the opposite reflects the actual publishing order: Happenstance is Jack’s story; two years later came Brenda’s story in A Fairly Conventional Woman. The obvious inheritor of the pair is A Celibate Season with the dual male/female narratives, and the setups are indeed similar: a man is left at home alone with his teenage kids, having to cope with chores and an unexpected houseguest.
What I remembered beforehand: The wife goes to a quilting conference; an image of a hotel corridor and elevator.
Jack, a museum curator in Chicago, is writing a book about “Indian” trading practices (this isn’t the word we’d use nowadays, but the terminology ends up being important to the plot). He and his best friend Bernie, who’s going through a separation, are obsessed with questions of history: what gets written down, and what it means to have a sense of the past (or not). I loved all the little threads, like Jack’s father’s obsession with self-help books, memories of Brenda’s vivacious single mother, and their neighbor’s failure as Hamlet in a local production. I also enjoyed an epic trek in the snow in a final section potentially modeled on Ulysses.
A Fairly Conventional Woman
“Aside from quiltmaking, pleasantness was her one talent. … She had come to this awkward age, forty, at an awkward time in history – too soon to be one of the new women, whatever that meant, and too late to be an old-style woman.”
Brenda is in Philadelphia for a quilting conference. Quilting, once just a hobby, is now part of a modern art movement and she earns prizes and hundreds of dollars for her pieces. The hotel is overbooked, overlapping with an International Society of Metallurgists gathering, and both she and Barry from Vancouver, an attractive metallurgist in a pinstriped suit whom she meets in the elevator, are driven from their shared rooms by roommates bringing back one-night stands. This doesn’t add anything to the picture of a marriage in Jack’s story and I only skimmed it this time. It’s a wonder I kept reading Shields after this, but I’m so glad I did!
I reviewed these last two earlier this year. They were previously my joint favorites of Shields’s work, linked by a gardening hobby, the role of chance, and the unreliability of history and (auto)biography. They remain in my top three.
The Stone Diaries (1995)
What I remembered beforehand: a long train ride, a friend who by the feeling ‘down there’ thought that someone had had sex with her the night before, and something about the Orkney Islands.
Larry’s Party (1997)
What I remembered beforehand: a food poisoning incident (though I’d thought it was in one of Shields’s short stories), a climactic event involving a garden maze, a chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” and the closing dinner party scene.
Looking back: Fortunately, in the last 15 years I’ve done something to redress my ignorance, discovering Canadian women writers whom I admire greatly: Elizabeth Hay, Margaret Laurence, Mary Lawson and especially Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.
Looking out: “I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.”
- That’s Judith on the last page of Small Ceremonies. It’s also probably Shields. And, to an extent, it seems like me. A writer, but mostly a reader, absorbing other lives.
Looking forward: I’m interested in rereading Shields’s short stories and Mary Swann (to be reissued by World Editions in 2021). And, though I’ve read 13 of her books now, there are still plenty of unread, lesser-known ones I’ll have to try to find secondhand one day. Her close attention to ordinary lives and relationships and the way we connect to the past makes her work essential.