Let’s Talk About Carol Shields

My final book of 2014 was Carol Shields’ The Box Garden. I’ve read all eight of her other novels but had been putting this one off because it was the only one of hers I hadn’t read yet.  Sadly, she passed away in 2003 and I guess I wanted to have something of hers to look forward to.  She wrote three short story collections, and three books of poetry though, so I still have those on the TBR list.

She’s one one my very favorite authors and I think she’s terribly underrated.  I feel like no one talks about her anymore, even though she’s a Pulitzer Prize winner (for The Stone Diaries.) Before she died she addressed her literary legacy and told Terry Gross of NPR:

“You know, I am a realist, and I know the shelf life of a book is about four months. The day that I got the Pulitzer Prize, I met Margot Jefferson and she said, “You know what this means, don’t you?” And I said, “No, what?” And she said, “You already know the first line of your obituary.” And of course I do. I found that rather frightening. But someone sent me a list of all the Pulitzer Prize winners since something like 1915, I think, and half of them I’d never heard of, half of them. So I don’t think literary reputations live on, very few of them. Books, you know, fall out of the public eye. So I don’t have a sense of leaving anything permanent at all. I suppose one thinks of one’s children as what you leave permanently, and their children. Naturally I like to write books that people enjoy reading, but the literary legacy, no it’s very unimportant to me.”

I think she’s a brilliant observer of human foibles and emotions.  She reminds me so much on Anne Tyler, another of my favorite authors – but I’d never made that connection until now!  They both catalog “ordinary” people, characters who are often quirky and neurotic yet endearing.  I read all sorts of stories, but I  particularly love reading about people who seem real to me – emotions and relationships that ring true even if the choices made are not logical or for the best.  And the writing!  Such lovely, insightful, precise writing.  Here’s an example from The Box Garden:

“I can never quite believe in the otherness of people’s lives. That is, I cannot conceive of their functioning out of my sight. A psychologist friend once told me this attitude was symptomatic of a raging ego, but perhaps it is only a perceptual failure. My mother: every day she lives in this house; it is not magically whisked away when I leave; the walls and furniture persist and so do the house which she somehow fills. When Seth was five and started school I came home the first day after taking him and grieved, not out of nostalgia for his infancy or anxiety for his future, but for the newly revealed fact that he had entered into that otherness, that unseeable space which he must occupy forever and where not even my imagination could follow.” 

This novel is a slim but engaging book, published in 1977,  and centers on Charleen, who’s pushing forty.  A divorced mother of a teenage boy, she’s traveling with her boyfriend of two years to visit her mother, who is getting married again.  It’s a tale of strained but familiar relationships, old hurts and regrets relived, and new beginnings.  It starts out kind of slow but really picks up steam once Charleen is back home with her difficult mom and her sister Judith.  A plot point involving Seth takes a rather unexpected turn near the end and makes for a page-turning ending.

We’ve got all of her novels here at the library where I work, so I’ll continue to recommend Carol Shields for as long as anyone will listen.  After I read her short stories I’ll go back and re-read her novels over time.  Her place among my favorite authors is safe and sound.  I think she’d be fine with that.

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