Carol Shields | Critical Review by Maria Horvath

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Carol Shields.
This section contains 1,072 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Maria Horvath

Critical Review by Maria Horvath

SOURCE: "Ordinary People," in Books in Canada, Vol. 11, No. 9, November, 1982, pp. 18-19.

In the following review, Horvath argues that A Fairly Conventional Woman fails to live up to the high standards Shields established in her earlier novels.

Carol Shields began her writing career as a poet, and her first three novels reflect a poetic view, a lyrical perspective. Two of them, Small Ceremonies and Happenstance, were especially notable for their imagery and for Shields's skillful handling of the musings of the main characters. In them Shields portrayed suburban life in great detail, but her descriptions, even of the prosaic, were almost always fresh and insightful. And because of their curiosity and imagination, her characters were appealing. Most important, she wrote with a delicate touch, so lightly that the reader discovered much more about the characters than the narrators apparently intended to reveal. Unfortunately A Fairly Conventional Woman is a weak successor to her previous accomplishments.

Readers of Shields's novels have already met the heroine, Brenda Bowman, wife of the historian Jack Bowman in Happenstance. We saw her only briefly before, because she was at a national crafts convention in Philadelphia. In her present novel Shields seems to have lost command of her character. In Happenstance, as seen through her husband's eyes, Brenda was a fascinating creature, a prize-winning quilter, gifted, artistic, still exciting to her husband after 20 years of faithful marriage. But in A Fairly Conventional Woman, which tells her side of the story of that week-long visit to Philadelphia, Brenda is quite an ordinary person. The title is not ironic.

Brenda's tale begins the day before the trip. She goes through all the motions of everyday life, preparing breakfast and laying out the table, planning the drive to the airport, worrying about her daughter, who's becoming overweight.

But there is so much still to do, and she hasn't started packing. Two of her blouses need pressing: the green one, the one that goes with her suit and with the pants outfit as well, and the printed one, which she plans to wear to the final banquet. At 3:15 she is having her hair cut, tinted, and blown dry at a new place over on Lake Street which has wicker baskets and geraniums in the window and scarlet and silver wallpaper inside. And if there's time, she wants to make a casserole or two to leave for Jack and the children—lasagna maybe, they love lasagna. Not that they aren't capable of looking after themselves; even Rob can cook easy things—scrambled eggs, hamburgers—and Laurie's learned to make a fairly good Caesar salad. They're not babies any more, Brenda says to herself, neither of them.

This unnecessary attention to minutiae is a problem throughout the book. Shields records in meticulous detail, for example, the chit-chat with the man in the seat next to Brenda on the plane:

"Of course, I'm young." He shot her a glance which seemed to Brenda to be partly apologetic, partly sly. "I've got lots of time to develop my, you know, my potential."

"Oh yes," Brenda said. "That's true."

"Hey, look out there."


"Pretty, huh?"


She transcribes in the same manner the interminably long interview with the woman at the desk of the hotel, the proceedings of the convention's meetings, and the small talk at the reception. What one asks, is the point of all this tedious detail? Is the author trying to show the contrast between the banality of real life and the creative energy of an artist's life? Is she telling us that a gifted artist can also be boring? Shields never makes this clear.

In her other books, Shields used dramatic irony to create friction between the main characters' knowledge of themselves and what her readers learned about them. In Small Ceremonies, for example, the heroine, a writer of biographies, slowly and carefully researched the lives of her subjects. She studied both the dramatic events and the commonplace happenings in their lives. In the end she pieced together a fascinating picture; there was a sense of discovery and surprise. In a similar way, and with equal excitement at the discovery, the reader got to know the heroine.

There are no such surprises about Brenda Bowman in A Fairly Conventional Woman. She is just what she herself says she is—orderly, good-hearted, a realist, neither introspective nor original. The few hints of a more complex character are not followed up: "What did this mean, this new impatience, this seething reaction to petty irritations…. Part of it, she sensed, was regret, for lately she had been assailed by a sense of opportunities missed." We are not told what these opportunities were, nor the difference that seizing them might have meant.

Because Brenda is quite predictable, the tension of the novel's one significant encounter quickly dissipates. Will she or won't she succumb to the temptation of a brief extra-marital affair at the convention? The reader knows long before Brenda decides.

In a few places Shields writes with the imagination of her previous books, as in her description of how Brenda is inspired to design her beautiful quilts:

… the patterns themselves seemed to come from some more simplified root of memory; sometimes they arrived as a pulsating rush when she was pulling weeds in the yard or shovelling snow off the front walk, but more often they appeared to her early in the morning before she opened her eyes, an entire design projected on the interior screen of her eyelid. She could see the smallest details, the individual stitches. All the pieces were there, the colours and shapes and proportions selected and arranged. When she opened her eyes to the light, she always expected the image to dissolve, but it remained intact, printed on an imaginary wall or beating slowly at the back of her head.

And Shields has developed a sharp, witty voice. Anyone who has attended a conference of any kind will laugh aloud at the pronouncements and jargon of the amateur politicos, the turgid analysis by the keynote speaker ("'The history of craft is a history of renunciation,' he croons into the microphone."), and the pretentiousness of the guest lecturer, with her talk on "Quilting Through the Freudian Looking-Glass: A New Interpretation."

Carol Shields is a good writer and should not be judged by this book alone. I look forward to her next novel and hope it will combine the imagery of her previous books with the satirical tone heard briefly in this one.

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This section contains 1,072 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Maria Horvath
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Maria Horvath from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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