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Critical Review by Mel Gussow
SOURCE: "A Celebrator of the Little Things," in New York Times, Vol. CXLIV, No. 50057, May 10, 1995, p. B2.
In the following review of The Stone Diaries, Gussow provides background on the Shields's life and career.
The Stone Diaries, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a rich, panoramic novel in the guise of a biography. As Carol Shields traces the life of Daisy Goodwill, from birth to death, through the 20th century, she creates a family tree and inserts an album of family photographs in the center of the book to underscore the tangibility of her characters.
"When I read biography," she said during an interview, "I always turn to the section of photographs and check the text against the image, again and again, so that when I'm finished reading the book, it opens all by itself to that place."
With the help of her editor, she said, she looked for photos that would reflect her feeling about her invented characters, eclectically gathering them from museums, antique stores and a Parisian postcard market. The last two pages of the photo insert are actually childhood pictures of Ms. Shields's son and four daughters.
At 59, the novelist has five grandchildren; she published her first novel when she was 40. Until then, in very traditional fashion, she brought up her children and managed the household as her husband pursued his career in civil engineering. When she took her first steps as a writer, she said, she felt a certain embarrassment and even guilt: "Sitting in an upstairs bedroom making up stories was not a fit occupation for a grown-up woman." As her confidence grew, so did her sense of storytelling.
Now she writes her novels in her office at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, where she is a professor of English and her husband is dean of the engineering department. Her daughters are the first to read the books when they are finished. Looking back, she said she had no regrets about the long delay in her career. From her perspective, she began writing when she was ready to write.
She was born in Oak Park, Ill., and is a naturalized Canadian with dual citizenship and "a foot on either side of the border." As "a hyphenate," she is in the rare position of being eligible for awards in England, Canada and the United States. In this halcyon year, she has been gathering honors. The Stone Diaries was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in Britain, received the Canadian Governor General's Literary Award and won the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize.
For many people, she may seem like a new writer, but behind The Stone Diaries is a body of work including six novels and two collections of short stories and a loyal readership, especially in Canada, where she is accepted as one of its leading authors.
Ms. Shields has also written three plays and was in Toronto for the opening of Thirteen Hands, a wistful collage about three generations of bridge players. At the Alumnae Theater, she was greeted as a celebrity, a role she responds to with customary modesty: she is petite, genteel and soft-spoken. After the show, in keeping with the hominess of the work, date squares and Rice Krispie bars were served at a reception.
Although she wrote poems and stories in high school and college, she never really thought she could be a professional writer. For a young woman growing up in the 1950's, she said, such an aspiration was as distant as "wanting to be a movie star." She explained that her parents had encouraged her to study for her teaching license "so I would have something to fall back on, if I were widowed or divorced, or failed to find a husband."
Soon after graduating from college, she married Donald Shields, who is Canadian, and they moved to Toronto. In her spare time, she wrote poetry and published two slim volumes. Years later, with seeming casualness, her husband suggested that she take a night school course in writing, and with equal casualness she enrolled. To fulfill an assignment, she wrote a short story, and the teacher sold it to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, which broadcast it on a short-story series. Ms. Shields, who was packing to go to England with her family for three years, said she was "flabbergasted" at the sudden success.
Later, while studying for a master's degree at the University of Ottawa, she wrote a literary whodunit, which three publishers rejected with encouraging letters. Readers' reports agreed that she was manipulating her characters from a great distance. Because she had been preparing her thesis on Susanna Moodie, a 19th century Canadian writer, she decided to write a novel closer to her life, about a woman who is writing about Susanna Moodie.
Producing two pages a day, it took her nine months: her sixth child. On the day she turned 40, she and her husband were packing again, this time for a year's sabbatical in France, when she learned that the book (Small Ceremonies) had been accepted. It was, as she sees it, another case of serendipity. When the novel was published, one of the first letters of congratulation came from Alice Munro, the writer she most admired. Now the two are friends and have equal stature.
Ms. Shields's novels, which take place in the United States as well as Canada, deal with people quietly facing emotional crises. The writing is marked by sophistication and insight into familial and marital relationships. The novels are filled with chance meetings and seemingly random events, coincidences of life that she regards as synchronicity. As with those in Anne Tyler's novels, her characters are people who might otherwise be overlooked.
The protagonist of Small Ceremonies says: "I am a watcher. My own life will never be enough for me. It's a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life." When the passage was quoted to her, Ms. Shields readily accepted it as the author's voice. It is her role as closely watchful observer that has given her books their intimacy.
While others may think of The Stone Diaries as a breakthrough, for her, the most intricate work was her fifth novel, Swann, which deals with academic rivals vying for the life and art of what she calls a "poète naïve of rural Ontario." After that came The Republic of Love, a deeply romantic novel in which a Winnipeg man and woman undergo a series of unsatisfying relationships until they finally meet and instantly fall in love. Ms. Shields recently finished writing the screenplay for the film version, which might do for Winnipeg what "Sleepless in Seattle" did for Seattle.
Writing The Stone Diaries, she worried that the story was thin on plot. Then she came across a statement from the novelist Patrick White, who said that he never worried about plot, he just wrote about "life going on toward death." "I relaxed into that quotation," said Ms. Shields. "It's always seemed to me that this was the great primordial plot: birth, love, death."
In her novel Happenstance, one of the two leading characters is a quilt maker, "a 40-year-old woman who discovers she is an artist, and nothing in her life has prepared her for that knowledge." For Ms. Shields, writing is like quilt making, and the important thing is the creating. "I always feel I'm making something when I write a book, an artifact," she said, "and that's where the pleasure is."
This section contains 1,245 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)