Shields wrote poetry, plays, biography, literary criticism, short stories, and novels but is probably best known for her novels. In all her work, Shields shows mastery in her attention to the minutiae of the human condition; her depictions of the quirky moments in her characters’ lives provide much of the humor in these works. However, her texts often examine the problems inherent in uncovering a life and the impossibilities of complete understanding between two persons, be they lovers, spouses, or family members. Shields counters these complex themes of identity and recognition by creating characters with a persevering, often comic look at the world they inhabit.
These themes can be found in her first novel, Small Ceremonies. Shields’s narrator, Judith Gill, a biographer and frustrated novelist, must examine the complexity of the literary life by uncovering the life of another writer. The follow-up to this novel, The Box Garden (1977), stays in the same family. Told from the perspective of Judith Gill’s younger sister Charleen Forrest, this novel looks at the benefits and frustrations of family life.
Shields’s third and fourth novels also work in tandem. Published first as Happenstance (1980) and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982) in Canada, the two novels were joined together into one text, Happenstance, in 1993. They recount the same time period in the lives of a married couple, Jack and Brenda Bowman. Brenda tells one version of the events; Jack tells another. Neither has the self-consciousness of knowing about the other’s version. Thus, the texts comment on each other in illuminating ways, illustrating one of Shields’s overarching themes: the innate misunderstandings between family members, regardless of the intimacy of the relationship.
Happenstance also more solidly articulates a recurring feminist theme in Shields’s work. In the novel, Brenda, a quilter, must decide whether she wants to maintain her art for herself or for a larger audience; in effect, she must decide what she gives up as a result of the decision. This idea of women’s choices being narrowed and inhibited by society will be found in other Shields’s texts as well.
Though many critics argued that Shields’s early work lacked innovation, her more experimental short fiction in collections such as Various Miracles (1985) gave her the opportunity to vary narrative structures and find alternate methods of conveying point of view. These experiments assisted her as she put together Swann, the novel which catapulted Shields into international prominence. Swann is told from the viewpoints of multiple persons who want to uncover and then restructure the life of a rural Canadian poet named Mary Swann. In an ironic look at the academic industry that forces scholars to publish or perish, the novel also suggests that a person can be reconstructed after he or she has been deconstructed. The postmodern novel also contains at its end a screenplay in which all of the characters enact a kind of Beckettian play about the text’s own fictionality. Swann was the winner of the Arthur Ellis First Mystery Novel Award (1988) and was short-listed for the Governor-General’s Award (1988).
Shields’s plays and poetry also display many of her themes. For example, her poems, such as those found in Coming to Canada (1992), reveal her changing sense of identity as she moved to her new country. Her plays such as Fashion, Power, Guilt, and the Charity of Families (1995), cowritten with her daughter Catherine Shields, often echo her writerly interests in the intersecting roles of family members.
In The Republic of Love (1992), perhaps Shields’s most comic novel, she problematizes the love affair between academic researcher Fay McLeod and the disk jockey Tom Avery. Like other artists and professional women in Shields’s work, Fay must make professional and personal decisions that balance a successful career with a fulfilling personal life. Part of the joy of this text is how Fay and Tom’s relationship works, despite their differing lifestyles.
The Stone Diaries, which won a series of awards including the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, chronicles Daisy Goodwill Flett’s life in a mock diary arrangement of lists, letters, pictures, dialogue, recipes, and other minutiae of her life. The novel illustrates Shields’s abiding interest in the work of biography and autobiography, even as it explores how Daisy’s life belonged to others rather than herself.
Larry’s Party depicts the life of a man who must find his way in the ever-changing demographics of the late twentieth century. The novel suggests the importance of those small, often insignificant moments in Larry’s growth. A topiary maze-builder by trade, Larry must learn to traverse the maze of his own life to discover who he is.
Fittingly, Shields paid homage to one of her influential foremothers in her Penguin biography Jane Austen. This critical piece offered up her perceptions on the author but also allowed Shields to enact her theories concerning the biographical form. In 2002, Jane Austen won the Charles Taylor Prize for literary nonfiction.
Shields’s collection of stories Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000) shows her return to narrative experimentation. One of the stories from this collection, “A Scarf,” introduces the character Reta Winters who becomes the first-person narrator of Shields’s last novel, Unless. In Unless, the main character Reta unravels the mystery of her daughter Norah, who has dropped out of college to become a...
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