Why can’t they all be this good?

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields is the story of one person’s life as she experiences the 20th century (primarily) in North America. There are wars, depression, children, love, work, illness, death and everything else in-between.   One of the first books I discussed here was Happenstance, also by Shields.  I liked it, but had expected more.  TSD was everything I expected from a Shields novel – well-written, surprising, technically impressive and full of interesting commentary on the human condition.    Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it – it won a Pulitzer Prize, the Governor General’s Award (Canada) and National Book Critics Circle Award.

This is the good stuff.  Every detail speaks to every other detail, and there are layers underneath the layers.   One example: the title – The Stone Diaries – works on several levels.  The book is a ‘diary’ of Daisy’s life – and her mother’s maiden name is Stone (though we know nothing about Mercy Stone’s family).  Daisy’s father and father-in-law were both stone cutters in rural Canada in the early 1900s, and her father eventually made his fortune selling a popular limestone in Indiana.  After Daisy’s mother dies, her father constructs a tower of stone around her grave.  The tower becomes so big that it attracts tourists to the area.  He also starts a stone pyramid in Bloomington after returning from a trip to Egypt, but never finishes it.  These are only the references to stone I can immediately recall – there are dozens more.

The book has an interesting structure.  It is written as a biography or journal – including letters from relatives and supposed family pictures – but is a work of fiction.  The book is separated into different sections – Childhood, Love, Ease, Death, etc.  Each section is presented differently.  For instance, the section where we learn of the unusual circumstances of Daisy’s birth is narrated by an omniscient Daisy.  Daisy tells how she imagines her birth (and the mother she never knew) based on the facts she’s been given.  This is the only section where we truly get a first-person account of Daisy’s life – the part she had no personal recollection of.

After her husband dies, she writes a column for the local newspaper. This section is presented via letters written to Daisy – nothing written by Daisy herself or even any events narrated in a third-person.  She is writing for a living, but we don’t see any of her writing.  I am certain this is a deliberate attempt to illustrate her powerlessness, she has a ‘voice’ in her writing, but in the end she is ‘let go’ so a man could have the job.

There is a different form for each section, but it is never choppy or a case of style interfering with story-telling.  I never lost interest and was always wondering what was coming on the next page.  Shields is a master at conveying not just events, but experiences.  This one goes in the permanent collection.

Happenstance – Carol Shields

Last month I read Unless by Carol Shields, so I had her on my mind when I was at Powell’s a few weeks ago.  I was on a reconnaissance mission to downtown Portland and Powell’s was my reward for successfully navigating the maze that is the East to West Portland highway system.  In the paratext of Unless, it mentioned Happenstance, which is actually two novels – one story told separately from the husband’s and wife’s perspectives.  I thought the idea was interesting and made a mental note to keep an eye out for it. Happenstance was one of several Shields novels on Powell’s well-populated shelf, and since it was on sale, it’s the one I brought home. Shields is a Pulitzer-prize-winning (The Stone Diaries) Canadian novelist I first read in my undergrad North American Literature class (we read Swann). She has also been short-listed for the Booker Prize more than once and is often compared to Margaret Atwood – both being Canadian, feminists, contemporaries and accomplished authors.

I have to say that this novel will not be going in my permanent collection. Brenda is a 40-year-old mother of two who has recently stumbled onto a career in quilting. She is off to a crafter’s convention for five days and each part of the novel features those five days she spends away from her family.  It is well-written, the characters are compelling and the plot is interesting.  But this is a story for a particular time period and perspective that no longer fascinates me. It mostly suffers because I have read most of Atwood’s novels/short stories of the same time period with similar themes, as well as other feminist authors.  So the story of a woman who feels as if she missed the feminist movement and sexual revolution because she was having children and being a mom feels tired to me.  The husband’s story did not feel as familiar, but felt more like the novelization of the post-modern theme of representation.  Jack is an historian and forever examining whether history can ever be accurate since so much of the human experience is never committed to writing.  Again, it suffers because I have already read so much on this topic, so nothing new here, either. Published in 1980, it is not surprising that the time-sensitive themes suffer from over-exposure (at least, over-exposed to someone who reads a lot of novels by feminists).

Also, I was expecting the same story from two viewpoints, not just the same five days and how a couple spent their first significant separation.  I read Brenda’s story first, so I was expecting to see her husband’s viewpoint of – for instance – their early-morning lovemaking before she boarded the plane.  But there were virtually no scenes shared between the two stories, and it was the idea of seeing that kind of writing that originally peaked my interest. Obviously, Shields is not responsible for my erroneous expectations, but I was disappointed nonetheless.

Happenstance also suffers from being compared to her latest novel, Unless.  That book made my heart sing when I read it and has a place on my shelf for the foreseeable future.    So I had pretty high expectations for Happenstance, and it didn’t live up to them.  This is certainly no slam on Shields or even this book. I enjoyed reading it and I’m sure others will, too.  It just isn’t something I’m going to want to read again or tell all my friends about (however, all of you should go read Unless right now. I’ll wait).  I may send it to my quilter friend, Sheila, she is not the jaded reader I am, and I think the quilting sub-plot would interest her (in fact, it was because of her that I found the quilting discussions interesting – having lived with someone who quilts all the time, I could relate to Brenda’s work).  So, to sum up – it’s all my fault I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I could have.