Carol Shields | Critical Review by Rita Donovan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Carol Shields.
This section contains 880 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Rita Donovan

Critical Review by Rita Donovan

SOURCE: "A Fine Romance," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXI, No. 3, April, 1992, p. 40.

In the following review of The Republic of Love, Donovan argues that Shields has taken the typical romance and infused it with depth and realism.

Carol Shields a romance writer? In her latest novel, The Republic of Love, Shields takes the reader on a foray into the cold landscape of the late 20th century. Her two protagonists, Fay McLeod and Tom Avery, personably document their respective states: Fay. a recently involved, now single folklorist who is studying the mermaid myth, and Tom, a lonely late-night talk-show host with three failed marriages under his belt. That they will meet and fall in love is inevitable; it is the stuff of romance novels. And, indeed, it is one of the devices Shields purposely adopts from the genre.

Technically, the book is crisply divided into parallel chapters alternating the narratives of Fay and Tom. Their stories progress separately, although minor characters familiar to them both pass from narrative to narrative. Roughly halfway through the book, Fay and Tom meet and fall immediately in love. Interestingly, although their lives now interweave, the narrative threads of their stories are kept separate, presumably to allow the reader to assess Fay through Tom's eyes and Tom through Fay's. This very successfully gives Shields ample room for irony.

Because of these structural decisions, the essential isolation of each character is underlined. Indeed, loneliness is one of the predominant themes in the novel. It contrasts with the longing for independence that several characters exhibit (Fay's father among them), and Shields also explores this duality—the consolatory woman figure and the impenetrable female, the essentially contradictory nature of the psyche—in describing Fay's mermaid research.

We see the loneliness. Tom is afraid of Friday nights. Fay is afraid to go home to an empty apartment. As Tom notes: "Misery does not love company. The lonely can do very little for each other. Emptiness does not serve emptiness."

Is romance possible under these circumstances? And what is romance, anyway? And what is love? These questions plague the citizens of The Republic of Love, and they are the basis for what surrounds the bare-boned story of Tom and Fay. No one seems to have definitive answers to these simple questions (simple if you live in a romance novel). Fay asks, "What does it mean to be a romantic in the last decade of the twentieth century?" Her brother Clyde answers "To believe anything can happen to us." Later Fay's father says almost the same thing: "You never know what's going to happen. What's just around the corner." This nicely complements a thought Tom has as he ponders that, despite his problems, "he wakes up most mornings believing that he is about to enter a period of good fortune."

Is this naïveté? As if Fay's and Tom's own existences aren't enough to convince them, all around they witness the wreckage of love, the compromises that have been made. Fay looks to her parents' settled life and finds it suffocating (yet, ironically, will later be distraught when her father leaves her mother). Fay says, "No one should settle for being half-happy." And her friend answers, "Really?" As Fay later observes: "The lives of others baffle her, especially the lives of couples." Yet despite the evidence of disastrous manifestations of love, Fay and Tom believe. This is underlined in Fay's folklore studies, for example, when she describes folk credulity: "Believers … develop an aptitude for belief, a willed innocence."

This optimism is certainly part of most "romances," and Fay and Tom fall as completely in love as any couple in a romance novel. The naïveté seems somehow necessary in order for the couple to begin to love at all. Both characters talk about being "alive" when love comes to them. Fay speaks of "the ballooning sensation of being intensely alive," and Tom notes: "So this is what it feels like. To be coming awake."

They try their best to live up to the old-fashioned versions of love. But Fay and Tom don't live on the pages of a Harlequin romance, and Fay observes that while everyone seems to be searching for love, love itself is not taken seriously: "It's not respected." And the world intrudes, as it always will.

Theirs, then, must be an "open-eyed" romanticism; they must choose to love, just as they must choose to believe. Contrary to the cynical world around them, and contrary also to the naïve vision in old movies and romance novels, they must create a life that does not deny dead marriages and dying friends, while also not denying the liberating "coming to life" that their love inspires.

Without these qualifications, Shields would have given us a charming tale with little direct bearing on the times. But Fay and Tom earn their right to love. They know the stakes, and they know the odds. So when Shields allows them to honeymoon in Tom's apartment and the storm outside "maroons" them there, the reader feels that they are entitled to their brief stay on their "island," before the world lays claim to them.

Carol Shields has created a sophisticated story in the romance of Fay and Tom. And the "happy ending," so traditional to the romance novel, is here refurbished, updated, and—most happily—earned.

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This section contains 880 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Rita Donovan
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