Synopses & Reviews
Larry Weller, born in 1950, is an ordinary guy made extraordinary by his creator's perception, irony and tenderness. Carol Shields gives us, as it were, a CAT scan of his life, in episodes between 1977 and 1997 that flash back and forward seamlessly. As Larry journeys toward the millennium, adapting to society's changing expectations of men, Shields' elegant prose makes the trivial into the momentous. Among all the paradoxes and accidents of his existence, Larry moves through the spontaneity of the seventies, the blind enchantment of the eighties and the lean, mean nineties, completing at last his quiet, stubborn search of self. Larry's odyssey mirrors the male condition at the end of our century with targeted wit, unerring poignancy and faultless wisdom.
About the Author
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935, Carol Shields moved to Canada at the age of twenty-two, after studying at the University of Exeter in England, and then obtained her M.A. at the University of Ottawa. She started publishing poetry in her thirties, and wrote her first novel, Small Ceremonies,
in 1976. Over the next three decades, Shields would become the author of over twenty books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a book of criticism on Susanna Moodie and a biography of Jane Austen. Her work has been translated into twenty-two languages.
In addition to her writing, Carol Shields worked as an academic, teaching at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia and the University of Manitoba. In 1996, she became chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She lived for fifteen years in Winnipeg and often used it as a backdrop to her fiction, perhaps most notably in Republic of Love. Shields also raised five children — a son and four daughters — with her husband Don, and often spoke of juggling early motherhood with her nascent writing career. When asked in one interview whether being a mother changed her as a writer, she replied, “Oh, completely. I couldnt have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. And my children give me this other window on the world.”
The Stone Diaries, her fictional biography of Daisy Goodwill, a woman who drifts through her life as child, wife, mother and widow, bewildered by her inability to understand any of these roles, received excellent reviews. The book won a Governor Generals Literary Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, bringing Shields an international following. Her novel Swann was made into a film (1996), as was The Republic of Love (2003; directed by Deepa Mehta). Larrys Party, published in several countries and adapted into a musical stage play, won Englands Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. And Shieldss final novel, Unless, was shortlisted for the Booker, Orange and Giller prizes and the Governor Generals Literary Award, and won the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction.
Shieldss novels are shrewdly observed portrayals of everyday life. Reviewers praised her for exploring such universal themes as loneliness and lost opportunities, though she also celebrated the beauty and small rewards that are so often central to our happiness yet missing from our fiction. In an eloquent afterword to Dropped Threads, Shields says her own experience taught her that life is not a mountain to be climbed, but more like a novel with a series of chapters.
Carol Shields was always passionate about biography, both in her writing and her reading, and in 2001 she published a biography of Jane Austen. For Shields, Austen was among the greatest of novelists and served as a model: “Jane Austen has figured out the strategies of fiction for us and made them plain.” In 2002, Jane Austen won the coveted Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. A similar biographical impulse lay behind the two Dropped Threads anthologies Carol Shields edited with Marjorie Anderson; their contributors were encouraged to write about those experiences that women are normally not able to talk about. “Our feeling was that women are so busy protecting themselves and other people that they still feel they have to keep quiet about some subjects,” Shields explained in an interview.
Shields spoke often of redeeming the lives of people by recording them in her own works, “especially that group of women who came between the two great women's movements…. I think those womens lives were often thought of as worthless because they only kept house and played bridge. But I think they had value.”
In 1998, Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer. Speaking on her illness, Shields once said, “Its made me value time in a way that I suppose I hadnt before. Im spending my time listening, listening to what's going around, what's happening around me instead of trying to get it all down.” In 2000, Shields and her husband Don moved from Winnipeg to Victoria, where they lived until her passing on July 16, 2003, from complications of breast cancer, at age 68.
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?