Friday, September 10, 2010
The Stone Diaries: Carol Shields
Yippee with this book I reach my "50 books read this year" mark! It has been perhaps slow going in the last couple of months with just about three books a month, and I didn't think I would reach this goal for a long time. Also, 50 books in so many months is not as impressive as some other bloggers who finish that much in a matter of two months. But perhaps my choices are different and so is my pace. Next count will come up on January 1st 2011, looking back on a year's worth of books! On to the review now...
After cracking up with laughter with Sh*t My Dad Says, which Soul kindly lent to me, I returned to the book I was reading. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields is far removed from Halpern’s comic wisdom and yet strangely they are both connected. Both deal with life, the only difference is in the way they approach it. The Stone Diaries tells the story of Daisy Goodwill, her birth, childhood, courtship, marriage, motherhood and finally death.
In a twist of circumstance, Daisy is brought up by her neighbor Clarentine Flett although her father corresponds with her regularly by mail. After a point Daisy meets her father Cuyler Goodwill and goes to live with him. She marries Harold Hoad who dies on their first night in a bizarre manner. Daisy gets married again, this time to Barker Flett who is more than two decades older to her. We see her living an apparently fulfilled life cushioned in the satisfactory sense of motherhood and a happy marriage. Barker Flett passes away and Daisy starts to work as a writer for a magazine. When Daisy takes a short hiatus from writing for her daughter’s marriage, she returns to find that her position has been taken up by someone else. Daisy goes through an intensively depressing phase, but then becomes well enough to retire to a content life in Florida, interspersed with holidays with her two best friends. Soon, death comes knocking with old age and Daisy Goodwill gently passes away.
So what is remarkable about this book you might ask? As you can see, I have told the story of just about every fifth person on this planet. Mundane. Normal. Average. “In other words a woman so commonplace that her story would seem barely worth remarking, were it not, perhaps, for her own determination to tell it… This is the problem that Carol Shields addresses in The Stone Diaries: how do small lives, the kind most women were once assumed to lead, assume significance and coherence?” says the book's introduction.
And Shields does a brilliant job of putting together the scraps, the debris and the scrapings of Daisy’s life to make up a collage of her life. To make this collage as believable as possible Shields uses the technique of multiple narrations from various points of view as well as different sources. We look at Daisy not just through the window of her own thoughts but through the peephole of mail correspondences, through slivers of others' eyes and through the perforations of such things as recipes, hobbies and lists. Everything in Daisy’s life is a part of what made her, what gives her shape. In this aspect the most admirable chapter is the last one named Death. After Daisy passes away we only hear snatches of conversation from unnamed observers:
“ “It was in her bedside drawer. This little velvet box.”
“What is it? It looks like -”
“That’s what it is. Fingernail clippings. Hers, I assume.”
This is punctuated by random lists or strings of things.
“Bluebirds, Pioneer Girls in Service…Christian Endeavor… Quarry Club, United Church Women, Mothers’ Union…Ontario Seed Collective, Bay Ladies Craft Group, The Flowers.”
Shields employs some unique methods like these, which peels away the layers of Daisy’s life that are invisible on the surface. We learn that there is a lot more to Daisy than her “average” life, that she has thoughts and feelings, which might never be voiced otherwise. That to every person’s life there are aspects, which make it individualistic even though it appears identical to scores of others.
I enjoyed The Stone Diaries, though I must warn that there were parts in the book that moved extremely slowly. I actually got impatient with a few passages and had to skip them but even in that it’s impossible to miss Shields’ brilliant manner of writing sprinkled with wry wit and sensitive observations. Through Daisy we are also given a glimpse of 1950s’ American society –
“Deeply, fervently, sincerely desiring to be a good wife and mother, Mrs. Flett reads every issue of Good Housekeeping… And every once in a while, between the cosmetic advertisements and the recipe columns, she comes across articles about ways a woman can please her husband in bed. Often, too, there are letters from women who are seeking special avice for particular sexual problems. One of them wrote recently, “My husband always wants to have our cuddly moments on Monday night after his bowling league. Unfortunately I do the wash on Mondays and am too exhausted by evening to be an enthusiastic partner.” The advice given was short and to the point: “Wash on Tuesdays.” ”
Shields was a refreshing change from the books that I have read in recent times. Yes, a tad dragging but definitely not average. Daisy Goodwill Flett soars much above that.
Verdict: A quiet, thoughtful read