Shields, Carol: Larry’s Party

Irving, John
A Widow for One Year

Vintage Canada, 1999
soft-cover

and

Shields, Carol
Larry’s Party

Vintage Canada, 1998
soft-cover

and

Monroe, Alice
The Love of a Good Woman

McClelland and Stewart, 1998
hardcover

First published in the Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer, 1999

Reviews by: Kerry Riley

The summer has crested, and the light levels are waning. So too, is the time you have left to catch up on all the great books you’ve been meaning/hoping to read, before a) September’s regimentation sets in; b) your vacation is over; c) your attention is diverted by the fall’s new crop of publications.

If you’re anything like me, stepping into a bookstore is like having your memory vacuumed. I instantly forget all the titles and even the authors in which I’m interested. I find myself staring desperately into the eyes of some well-meaning but rightfully baffled salesperson, saying things like: “I can’t remember the title, but I think there’s a horse in it. The author’s name sounds something like parsley. It might be blue.” If this exchange seems familiar, cut my next two County Life book columns out, and take them with you to the bookstore–they’re a roundup of some great books, by established masters, published in the last year or so, which simply can’t go unread any longer.

A Widow for One Year
John Irving

The voluminous subject of voluminous rave reviews, John Irving’s eagerly awaited latest novel deals with big ideas about life and love–the possibility of lifelong obsession, the credibility of May-September romance, different types of loss and various reactions to it, the risks of commitment, and the power (positive and negative) of friendship and family.

Ruth Cole, the main character, is a successful novelist obsessed with an idea–that there can be, in any life, certain defining moments that are so shocking, or troubling, or altering, that they force decisions from us that irrevocably change the direction of our lives. Wanting to explore this idea in her next book, she sets out, while on a promotional tour in Amsterdam, to research a potential plot line by visiting the famous brothel section of that city. Very shortly, she experiences one of these moments herself. Her research led her smack into the middle of a nasty murder mystery which does, in several ways, change the direction of her life.

It’s a strangely sprawling epic (537 pages) spanning three generations–with serendipity occasionally seeming to take control of the plot–but isn’t that just like life! Irving, in his straightforward, accessible prose, spins an utterly absorbing tale.

Larry’s Party
Carol Shields

Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields, master chronicler of the lives of ordinary women, has now, according to the promotional literature for her new book Larry’s Party, examined the life of an ordinary man, and, in doing so, made it extraordinary.

While Shield’s ability with “life stories,” male or female, bears no reproach, and the life portrayed has certainly been made extraordinary, the particular claim that she has, in Larry’s Party, done for the life of a man what she did for those of women in The Stone Diaries is, for me, a source of some controversy. Personally, while I found Larry’s story fascinating, evocative, warm and absolutely readable, I couldn’t feel that his life was particularly ordinary– he starts out as a florist, and ends up as a world-renowned master maze builder. Neither did I feel that his perspective and sensibilities were convincingly male–no definite yang for Daisy Goodwill’s yin.

Shields goes to some trouble to counteract the common perception that, as a male floral designer, Larry must be gay. Still, if one’s goal is to honour the life of an ordinary man– Larry, a mildly effeminate maze-master, seems a peculiar choice. It’s fiction, after all — why not simply choose an occupation that requires less defense and explanation? I suspect that Shields herself, aware of Larry’s strangely feminine essence, attempted to deal with reader’s uncertainties by confronting them head-on and then putting them aside. It’s a mistake, but a common one, she tells us, to feel that Larry is feminine. Myself, I tend to feel that Sheilds’ powers are concentrated in the evocation of the feminine, and that this experiment with the male perspective was not entirely successful.

This opinion of mine is not without opposition, and not one that prevented me from enjoying the book immensely. Life is fascinating, all by itself, and no one can tell a life’s story like Carol Shields.

The Love of A Good Woman
Alice Munro

In this collection of eight short stories, three time Governor General award-winning Alice Munro works her magic yet again. This time, she sets her steady eye on the phenomenon of love — its power, its complications and consequences. Her stories are very full, expansively replete — there’s none of the sense of a “minimalist meal,” that pervades so many short stories–each of her tales contains all that it needs, and each one is, by itself, as satisfying as a novel.

Reading an Alice Munro story is something like being shown a beautiful polished stone by a mysterious wise-woman–it’s cool and shiny, lovely in itself, and you know you’ve been given something important. But what, exactly? Only later, and slowly, do you realize that it has plunked itself into the middle of your subconscious, and stirred things up. Things you’ve always, in some way, known, keep floating to the surface.

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