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The Stone Diaries
Carol Shields

 
Introduction

"A kind of family album made into a work of art" -New York Newsday

From her calamitous birth in Manitoba in 1905 to her journey with her father to Indiana, throughout her years as a wife, mother, and widow, Daisy Stone Goodwill struggled to understand her place in her own life. Now, in old age, Daisy attempts to tell her life story through a novel. She listens, she observes, and, through sheer force of imagination, she becomes a witness of her own life: her birth, her death, and the troubling misconnections she discovers in between.

"She enlarges on the available material, extends, shrinks, reshapes what's offered; this mixed potion is her life. She swirls it one way or the other, depending on—who knows what it depends on—the fulcrum of desire, or of necessity. She might drop in a ripe plum from a library book she's reading or something out of a soap opera or a dream."

The life in question belongs to Daisy Goodwill Flett, "a middle-class woman, a woman of moderate intelligence and medium-sized ego and average good luck." 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. And in telling it, give it shape and meaning-even if she must supply these herself.

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? How closely do our versions of those lives correspond to objective facts? Can facts be said to exist at all in the context of something as changeable and arbitrary as a life? To what extent do "our" stories really belong to us, considering the tendency that other people-parents, spouses, children-have to intrude in them, interpret them, claim them?

The Stone Diaries approaches these problems with seductive prose, a serene wit and an artfulness that is all the more dazzling given the novel's apparent insistence on the ordinary. Indeed, one of Shields' conceits has been to disguise her fiction as a "real" biography, complete with period photographs and a family tree. But beneath the scrupulous-if spurious-documentation and bland rural and suburban settings lie incidents as fantastic as the inventions of Gabriel García Márquez: a hugely fat woman dies in childbirth without ever realizing that she was pregnant; a dour Orkneyman journeys back to the island he left decades before, severing ties, jettisoning possessions, and living on to the age of 115 (with the uncanny ability to recite Jane Eyre from memory); a young husband falls to his death ten days after his wedding, possibly as the result of an unexpected sneeze, and his wife, who did the sneezing, never mentions her marriage and its grotesque ending to another soul. Strangest of all, the heroine of this novel passes through her life without ever fully occupying it-an absence that this beautiful and haunting book attempts to redeem.

 

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