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Stone Diariesby Carol Shields
Reading Group Guide
1. Carol Shields spoke of becoming a writer because there werent enough books that examined womens friendships and womens inner lives — or, as she put it, “the kind of book I wanted to read but couldnt find.” In what ways does Shieldss fiction bring the lives of women to the surface, or into our understanding? What sorts of female experiences does she illuminate?
2. In her novels and stories, Shields often experiments with using different voices. The Stone Diaries shifts between first-, second-, and third-person narrative; one section of Larrys Party is recorded almost entirely in dialogue; Happenstance is a novel in two parts, one narrated by the husband, one by the wife; the stories in Various Miracles come from a wide variety of narrative standpoints. Discuss point-of-view in Shieldss works, and the importance of telling ones own stories — as characters or in real life. Also, what is the role of the writer in telling other peoples stories for them?
3. Though shes lauded as a writer who brought the lives of ordinary people to the page and made them extraordinary, Carol Shields took some exception to the idea in one interview: “I have never known what ‘ordinary people means! I dont think I quite believe in the concept…. Theres no one who isnt complicated, who doesnt have areas of cowardice or courage, who isnt incapable of some things and capable of great acts. I think everyone has that capability. Either were all ordinary or else none of us is ordinary.” Discuss the role of ordinary life in Shieldss fiction. How do her above views come across in her writing? Is there a respect for the everyday that you dont see in works by other writers?
4. Shields once commented that shed often set up the structure of a novel, determining such elements as how many chapters there would be, and how long theyd be, before she even set out to write. “I need that kind of structure,” she explained. “[S]ometimes I change it. But mostly I dont.… I love structures, and I love making new structures for novels.” Discuss the overall structures of different novels and how they relate to the content. For example, does Larry Wellers love of garden mazes say anything about the twenty years of his life covered by Larrys Party? What meaning can be found in the one-word chapter titles of Unless? How does Shields use, or even undermine, the biography format in The Stone Diaries?
5. “I'm concerned about the unknowability of other people,” Shields once said. “That's why I love biography and the idea of the human life told or shown. Of course, this is why I love novels, too. In novels, you get to hear how people are thinking. Thats why I read fiction.” How does Shields expose and often celebrate the inner lives of her characters? Can you find examples of characters who arent really known to those around them? How do their relationships suffer, or thrive, or even just survive, in the face of such distance?
6. How does what you know about Carol Shields as a person affect your reading of her books? Are you able to separate the author from her work? Do you feel the need to? What parallels can you draw between her approach to life and those of her characters? For instance, most of her main characters are women at mid-life, and many of her characters are writers or work in other areas of book publishing (translators, editors, etc.).
7. In interviews about Larrys Party, Carol Shields commented more than once that men were “the ultimate mystery” to her. Discuss the male characters in Shieldss fiction — both those in prominent roles, like Larry Weller in Larrys Party or Tom Avery in The Republic of Love, and the many husbands and lovers that seem to populate the sidelines of other stories and novels. How successfully does Shields portray the world of men in her work? Are there common characteristics you can trace between books? Are some of her male characters defined by the women they love? Or is it more often the other way around?
8. Many of Carol Shieldss works explore the ways individuals interact with their communities. Some characters are defined by their loneliness, while others struggle with their responsibilities to the people around them, whether its their family or a larger group. Discuss the roles of family and community in Shieldss fiction.
9. Carol Shields has always been well-known for her love of language, and its slipperiness. In what ways does her writing call attention to itself as writing? Are there particular stories or novels that you find playful? Or linguistically complex?
10. Author and literary journalist James Atlas, who edited the series for which Shields wrote her Austen biography, once said about Carol Shields, “she is our Jane Austen.” Compare Shieldss fiction to that of Austen — are there common themes or techniques? What other major authors would you compare Shields to, and why? Where does her work fit into our literary canon?
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