Carol Shields | Critical Review by Eunice Lipton

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Carol Shields.
This section contains 1,547 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Eunice Lipton

SOURCE: "Smaller than Life," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 7, April, 1996, pp. 17-18.

In the following review of Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, Lipton compares the protagonists from each novel.

Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, Carol Shields' earliest published novels, unfold in Canadian suburbs and cars; they portray the lives of decent people who slowly pull meaning, sometimes wisdom, out of mundane pain and familiar satisfactions. Indeed, the books are like laboratories where Shields peruses the commonplace and discovers her metier. There is nothing in them that is larger than life. There is something, however, that makes Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden remarkable, particularly for women readers: the protagonist of each book is a woman who writes.

Small Ceremonies was published in Canada in 1976, The Box Garden in 1977. I suspect they were originally intended as one book which didn't coalesce and so was divided into two. The main characters are two sisters who make appearances in both books. Small Ceremonies is told in Judith (McNinn) Gill's voice. She is a successful biographer of the unfamous and a wife and mother in her early forties, contentedly married to Martin, a Milton specialist who teaches at a nearby university. Their two children are Richard, nine, and Meredith, sixteen.

Judith is an efficient, decent person who has a professional interest in gossip and is somewhat given to envy. She is principled and correct and her decency elicits our respect. The family leads a steady, predictable life in a house near Toronto. Their friends include academics, one famous writer, graduate students, wives and mothers. There is no plot to speak of. Events unfold in chapters named for the months September through April; Judith's inner self, her musing writer's self, negotiates the days and seasons, assimilating details, references, memories.

The Box Garden is more structured, but so awkwardly that I was continually brushing aside narrative filaments in my attempt to keep Charleen (McNinn) Forrest, the other sister, in focus. She is a poet in her mid-thirties who lives with her fifteen-year-old son Seth in Vancouver. She earns a living at a boring, unremunerative job, editing an academic journal on botany. Charleen is a stubbornly passive, quite nervous person, always fretting and worrying. She lives mostly in her head and maintains a compulsive conversation with her superego. Unlike Judith, she is not a soothing presence. Her boyfriend, Eugene, is an orthodontist—and here Shields surely pushes the commonplace into your face: Can you take it? You can almost see her smiling, daring you. Charleen's friends can't, and it's an indication of an entirely different Charleen that she doesn't give a damn.

The narrative in The Box Garden takes Charleen and Eugene to Toronto to attend her mother's marriage. While there she meets her stepfather-to-be, spends time with her sister—they are forced to share their childhood bedroom while their male companions are put to sleep elsewhere—observes, if doesn't quite visit with, her mother. As might be expected, the sisters are different types of writers. Judith is matter-of-fact: "I am putting the finishing touches on Susanna Moodie." No Problem. Charleen is ironic: "'[My poetry is] about the minutiae of existence,' I said with mock solemnity." So self-effacing is Charleen that the reader is caught off guard when she refers to her last three volumes of published poetry.

Each sister describes a desolate childhood. Judith says to a friend, "'Do you know what it was that frightened me most about childhood?… That it would never end…. It was the terrible, terrible suffocating sameness of it all … the awful and relentless monotony.'" Charleen is more specific. When Eugene asks about her mother, "But she must have loved you. You and your sister?" Charleen responds:

It's hard to explain … because she had loved us but with an angry, depriving love which, even after all these years, I don't understand. The lye-bite of her private rancour, her bitter shrivelling scoldings. When she scrubbed our faces it was with a single, hurting swipe. When we fell down and scraped our knees and elbows she said, "that will teach you to watch where you're going."

Judith voices an explanation for their vocations: "My sister Charleen, who is a poet, believes that we two sisters turned to literature out of simple malnutrition. Our own lives just weren't enough…. We were underfed, undernourished; we were desperate. So we dug in. And here we are, all these years later, still digging." As Charleen puts it, "My survival was hooked into my quirky, accidental ability to put words into agreeable arrangements. I could even remake my childhood, that great void in which nothing had happened but years and years of shrivelling dependence. I wrote constantly…."

Neither book focuses on the psychological. Self-containment and domesticity set emotional contours. That's life, these books take for granted, all we've got: mothers, fathers, sisters, children, husbands, and lovers-soon-to-become husbands. Neither friends nor professional life figure. This is a world without allure, as if one doesn't even have to make a case for domesticity. Houses are banal, neighborhoods plain, husbands decent, children more or less manageable. There's no noise in these books, no unexpected movements, no smells. Nor is it so chilling that you run to bundle up in wools and flannels, sip hot tea in warm mugs, fall into a trance in front of the fireplace. It's not the acrid sadness of Raymond Carver's stories that makes you want to slit your throat or cry your heart out. No, in Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, one accepts what one is given—genteel ordinariness with an occasional quiver of love, accomplishment, solace. Banality is the drear backdrop, the white noise against which Judith and Charleen make biographies and poems. And each in her different way wonders: what is a worthwhile life, why write, how do love and writing go together?

Judith manages better than Charleen. She's more stable and organized, her life more routinized. Charleen is a bit out of it, obsessively fretting as she does, self-described as the "pathetic younger-sister-from-the-west." The eponymous box garden is her metaphor. She plants a box of grass in her house and says, "Anyway grass can put up with almost anything." It's a secret garden that only she knows about. One pictures her lost in thought before the box, the static turned off. She can pretend to dullness, write the poems behind her back even as she publishes one book of poetry after the other to critical acclaim. There's nothing there, she can insist, only grass.

Both sisters sense something is wrong with them. Each uses the words "bravery" and "cowardice" too often. Judith comments about her daughter, "If she were braver she would be beautiful." She tells a friend that as a child, "I was a real coward." Charleen says, "I will never be brave. Never. I don't know what it was—something in my childhood probably—but I was robbed of my courage." And a few pages on: "And I, suffering from a lack of bravery, must expend all my energies preparing for the next test. And the next. And the next." Finally, "My hereditary disease, the McNinn syndrome, has riddled me with cowardice…." What are these women missing in themselves? What would it mean to them to be brave?

Would Judith leave her husband and children, become a writer on her own, take back her family name, have intimate friends and lovers, move out of the suburbs? Would Charleen get rid of her busybody friends, get a better-paying job, tell her mother off? Certainly anger is not in their vocabulary. Judith, upon finding out that a prominent friend has plagiarized her own work, says: "My heart was beating wildly; I could feel it through the heavy quilting of my dressing gown. Anger almost choked me, but in spite of it (or maybe even because of it), I fell instantly asleep…."

I have a feeling that these women's self-containment helps them write. The world hurls by on either side of them. They pull in the bits and pieces that they need. The churning is inside. They are masters at creating distance in their lives. One could say that these two books are about writing and distance, and more particularly about the distance these two different women must establish, insist on establishing, in order to write.

Judith says of her close friend, "Nancy who is my good, my best friend, has never been an intimate." Once, when she is quite ill with flu, her husband Martin out of sympathy—and loneliness—lies down next to her, and she says to herself, "I am obscurely angered that he has violated my bed with his presence." Judith likes distance. She gets at people's secrets in her books, she can invade her subjects' privacy. And they can't touch her. Charleen is unable to make the same separations. She says of herself: "I can never quite believe in the otherness of people's lives. That is, I cannot conceive of their functioning out of my sight." Charleen creates distance through obsessing.

One doesn't end up loving these women—Judith in particular—but the trajectory of their lives is intriguing. They are good people who work hard, who try to figure out the decent way to be, not to hurt people, not to disturb themselves too much, to love quietly, soberly. And to keep on writing.

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This section contains 1,547 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Eunice Lipton
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