Shields, Carol (Vol. 91)
Carol Shields The Stone Diaries
Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, National Book Critics Circle Award, and 1993 Governor General's Award for Fiction
Born in 1935, Shields is an American-born Canadian novelist, poet, playwright, and critic.
The Stone Diaries (1993) is the unique fictional autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, whose story encompasses time both before her birth and after her death and covers the more than eight decades of her life in Canada and the United States. Narrated by Daisy but written in the third person (with periodic breaks into the first), the story begins with her birth in 1905 in rural Manitoba, Canada. Daisy's mother, extremely overweight and unaware that she is pregnant, dies moments after Daisy is born. Unable to care for his daughter, Cuyler Goodwill convinces his neighbor Clarentine Flett to raise the child. Soon afterward, Clarentine leaves her husband and, taking Daisy with her, travels to Winnipeg, where she moves in with her son, Barker. Clarentine dies several years later, and Cuyler takes Daisy to Bloomington, Indiana, where he becomes a highly successful stonecarver. There, Daisy matures and enters into a "socially correct" marriage with a wealthy young man who dies during their honeymoon. In 1936 she returns to Canada in search of a life change and marries Barker Flett, who has become renowned for his agricultural research. Daisy finds fulfillment in her role as wife and mother; but after Barker dies, she takes over the rather staid and technical gardening column he wrote for the Ottawa Recorder, and, writing as the lively Mrs. Greenthumb, develops a devoted readership and experiences the most meaningful and rewarding time of her life. Her joy is short-lived, however, as the editor allows himself to be convinced that a more senior staff writer should handle the column. Daisy suffers through a period of depression, eventually recovering and moving to Sarasota, Florida, where she settles into a comfortable, retired life.
Critical reaction to The Stone Diaries has been overwhelmingly favorable. Commentators have praised Shields for exploring such universal problems as loneliness and lost opportunities, and for demonstrating that all lives are vital and significant regardless of outward appearances. The novel has been seen as a brilliant examination of the relationship between one's inner and outer "selves." Critics also note Shields's subtle blurring of the distinctions between fiction, biography, and autobiography. Allyson F. McGill writes: "Shields and Daisy challenge us to review our lives, to try and see life honestly, even while 'their' act of authorship only reveals how impossible it is to see and speak objective truth."
Others (poetry) 1972
Intersect (poetry) 1974
Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (criticism) 1976
Small Ceremonies (novel) 1976
The Box Garden (novel) 1977
Happenstance (novel) 1980
A Fairly Conventional Woman (novel) 1982
Various Miracles (short stories) 1985
Swann: A Mystery (novel) 1987
The Orange Fish (short stories) 1989
A Celibate Season [with Blanche Howard] (novel) 1991
The Republic of Love (novel) 1992
The Stone Diaries (novel) 1993
Coming to Canada (poetry) 1993
Thirteen Hands (drama) 1994
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SOURCE: "A Family and Its Good Fortune," in The Spectator, Vol. 271, No. 8617, September 4, 1993, pp. 28-9.
[Brookner is an English novelist, nonfiction writer, critic, and translator. In the following review, she remarks favorably on The Stone Diaries, noting Shield's characterization and optimism.]
'I have said that Mrs Flett recovered from the nervous torment she suffered some years ago, and yet a kind of rancour underlies her existence still: the recognition that she belongs to no one.' This marvellous sentence is extracted at random from [The Stone Diaries,] Carol Shields's account of an unremarkable life, one which will fill her readers with amazed gratitude for a novel which fulfils its promise to the very end, and, more, one which will put them in mind of a more established social order, now apparently lost, in which there was an element of honour in upward mobility, and in which all ends happily, or at least as happily as final dissolution will allow.
'Feisty' say the nurses admiringly in the Canary Palms Convalescent Home, but Mrs Flett, born Daisy Goodwill, is ordinary in every particular except her birth, which occurred in the kitchen of her parents' home at Grange Road, Tyndall, Manitoba, one very hot summer afternoon. Her mother had not known she was pregnant, and died, presumably of shock, minutes after the birth. The father, Cuyler Goodwill, who worked at...
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SOURCE: "Sunny Side Up," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 17, September 9, 1993, p. 19.
[Fitzgerald is an English novelist, biographer, and journalist. In the review below, she remarks favorably on The Stone Diaries.]
The Stone Diaries (though there are in fact no diaries, they are said to have been lost) because everyone raised in the Orphans' Home in Stonewall Township, Manitoba is given the name of Stone, because Mercy Stone's husband, Cuyler Goodwill, works in the limestone quarries, because her neighbour, the dour Magnus Flett, comes from the stony Orkneys, because Mrs Flett is killed when she falls against the sharp stone corner of the Bank, because for all of us the living cells will be replaced in death by 'the insentience of mineral deposition'. A train of imagery, then, which recalls the mermaid metaphors, 'giving off the fishy perfume of ambiguity' in Shields's last novel, The Republic of Love. The present book is just as readable, but more disconcerting.
The section headings—Birth, 1905; Childhood, 1916; Marriage, 1927; Love, 1936; Motherhood, 1947; Work, 1955–64; Sorrow, 1965; Ease, 1977; Illness and Decline, 1985; Death—cover all the grand old topics of McCall's, Good Housekeeping and the Canadian Home Companion which for so many decades gave social and moral counsel and explained how to turn out a jellied veal loaf. The protagonist...
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SOURCE: "Straining to Fulfill Ambitions," in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, October 2, 1993, p. C23.
[Below, Sherman offers a mixed review of The Stone Diaries.]
A single question sits at the heart of all Carol Shields' fiction: How can we ever truly understand another person's life? In Swann, a scholar tries to explain how a simple Kingston farm wife managed to write a slim volume of unaccountably fine poetry. In Small Ceremonies, a biographer with "an unhealthy lust for the lives of other people" rummages through the house she's rented to learn all she can about the absent owners.
In The Stone Diaries, Shields examines the evidence of a woman's life the way a geologist might study fossils. Each piece is excavated and meticulously scrutinized by relatives and friends in an attempt to construct a credible version of the past, telling a story that sweeps back and forth across a century and several generations.
Much of that narrative material will be familiar to admirers of the author's nine previous works of fiction, rich in domestic detail and intelligent compassion for her characters. Here, Shields seems to be striving for something grander. Along with her attempt to solve the mysteries of a single life is the intention to reflect the moral complexities of an age. But in the end, Daisy Goodwill's tiny secrets and personal disappointments cannot bear...
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SOURCE: "Redeemed by an Act of Imagination," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, October 3, 1993, p. 28.
[In the following review, Messud remarks favorably on The Stone Diaries.]
"Things begin, things end. Just when we seem to arrive at a quiet place we are swept up, suddenly, between the body's smooth, functioning predictability and the need for disruption." Thus comments the narrator of The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields's latest accomplished and moving offering. Such ebb and flow, the relentless abruptness of change—it is the rhythm of life itself that Shields is addressing, its variety, the ordinariness of its idiosyncracies and the reassuring way it can accommodate astonishing, divergent paths.
To address these large paradoxes, Shields has chosen to follow the life of a Canadian woman named Daisy Goodwill, born in rural Manitoba at the start of the century to a mother who dies in childbirth and a bewildered father who cannot initially cope with his child. Around Daisy's life accrue the stories and histories of other lives—of her father, of her unknown mother, of Barker Flett (whom she eventually marries), of her friends and her children—and she wills all these stories into existence in the telling of her own.
This record of her own story, though, as Shields makes clear, is a triumph of Daisy's imagination, that has created a tale out of a life the world...
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SOURCE: "Small Is Beautiful," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. 72, No. 826, January-February, 1994, pp. 44-5.
[Summers is a Canadian journalist and short story writer. In the review below, she discusses the characters in The Stone Diaries.]
When The Stone Diaries was short-listed for the Booker Award earlier this fall, those of us who have long admired Carol Shields' work felt joy, but also what I can only describe as a glad combativeness. Maybe now Shields' books would get the admiration they deserve in Canada, we told one another. Maybe now the jury that neglected even to shortlist Shields' splendid novel, The Republic of Love, for a Governor General's Award would blush with shame. [In November, after this review was received, Carol Shields was awarded the Governor General's Award for Fiction, for The Stone Diaries.]
As I suppose everyone must know by now, The Stone Diaries is the fictional biography of a woman whom the author has described as being "erased from her own life", the kind of woman who usually gets a four-inch obituary when she dies. Shields has tried to understand this life by the traces it leaves, to present the life and times of her character, Daisy Goodwill Flett, "prised out of the fossil field and brought up to life". Not surprisingly, the Booker judges commended Shields for "giving us a new kind of heroine".
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SOURCE: "Rock-Solid, Stone-Cold," in New York Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 10, March 7, 1994, p. 62.
[In the following excerpt, Koenig discusses the plot and themes of The Stone Diaries.]
Speaking at her college-graduation ceremony, Daisy Goodwill's father asks his audience to think of the knowledge they have acquired as if it were Salem limestone, the pride of Indiana. "You are the stone carver. The tools of intelligence are in your hand. You can make of your lives one thing or the other…. The choice, young citizens of the world, is yours." The following June, however, he tells Daisy's engagement party that the fossil stone itself exists because of "the lucky presence" 300 million years before of a warm, shallow sea. Whether our lives are formed by conscious acts or by the accretion of numerous tiny accidents is the theme of The Stone Diaries.
Daisy Stone Goodwill's life begins one day in 1905 when her father comes home from working a quarry in central Manitoba to find that his wife has died giving birth. It is not only a shock but a surprise, since he didn't know his immensely fat wife was pregnant—but, then, neither did she. Daisy remains in Canada for her childhood, travels with her father to the Midwest for an agreeable, if mostly uneventful youth, then returns to Canada for middle age, marriage, and an unexpected, successful career. She ends up in Florida playing bridge with...
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SOURCE: "Men and Women, Forever Misaligned," in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1994, pp. 3, 14.
[Parini is an American poet, novelist, critic, and educator. In the following review, he favorably assesses The Stone Diaries.]
Carol Shields, the American-born Canadian novelist and story writer, is often mentioned in the same breath with Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, and her last novel, The Republic of Love, attracted a small but enthusiastic band of admirers, myself among them. Last year The Stone Diaries was nominated for Britain's Booker Prize and acclaimed by many reviewers there. Now it has been published here, and it deserves our fullest attention.
The novel provides, glancingly, a panorama of 20th-century life in North America. Written in diary format, it traces the life of one seemingly unremarkable woman: Daisy Goodwill Flett, who is born in 1905 and lives into the 1990's. The Stone Diaries includes an elaborate family tree of the sort usually found in biographies as well as eight pages of family photographs. Surveying the faces in these photos of Ms. Shields's sharply drawn characters, the reader naturally wonders: are these "real" people or the made-up kind?
The question soon becomes irrelevant: indeed, the novel willfully smudges the already blurred distinctions between fact and fiction. "When we say a thing or an event is...
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SOURCE: A review of The Stone Diaries, in The Christian Science Monitor, March 30, 1994, p. 19.
[In the following review, Van Tuyl Clayton asserts that The Stone Diaries concerns "the universal problem of how ordinary men and women connect with one another and whether they are living authentic lives in an age of frightening change and equally frightening superficiality."]
Bestseller lists these days are flush with stories involving characters of monolithic courage or titanic ambition caught up in strange adventure or romantic exploit.
For those of us fatigued by all this fictional heroism, author Carol Shields has torpedoed the notion that only nervous excitement and derring-do can generate a gripping story. Instead, she meticulously depicts the life of a lone woman, Daisy Goodwill Flett, a character so remarkably ordinary she could be anyone's mother or grandmother.
Despite all this ordinariness, a quality both chilling and fascinating emerges from The Stone Diaries, a novel in which every day of this woman's life is a self-enclosed drama of its own, but performed before no appreciative audience.
From her birth in 1905 in rural Manitoba to her widowhood and death 85 years later, Daisy (named for the most common of flowers) moves across the flickering backdrop of the 20th century, a woman resigned to her "sphere" of domestic toil,...
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SOURCE: "A Tangle of Underground Streams," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 32, 34.
[In the following review, McGill discusses the main themes in The Stone Diaries.]
Daisy Stone Goodwill, heroine and chronicler of Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries, never knew her mother, but this does not stop her from envisioning her mother's death on the day of her own birth. In a mesmerizing examination of the nature of fiction and autobiography, Shields puts the pen into Daisy's hand, thus posing many puzzles, some forthright, others more oblique. So caught up are we in Daisy's story that only gradually do we realize what she is doing—nothing less than creating the totality of her life, reaching far beyond what she can truly know, and taking liberties with what she does.
The Stone Diaries, nominated for the 1993 Booker Prize, begins with Daisy's birth and extends to beyond her death some 90 years later. Ignore what you have read elsewhere about this being the story of an ordinary woman. No one in a Shields novel is ordinary. Her people, touched by some outside awareness, transcend the everyday. Somehow Shields always elevates her characters from the prosaic, commingling the darkness and the light in their lives. Daisy's darkness begins when her mother, Mercy—an orphan of elephantine size beloved by her young stonecutter husband,...
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SOURCE: An interview in Scrivener, Spring, 1995, pp. 76-85.
[In the following interview, which was conducted in December 1994, Shields discusses The Stone Diaries and her writing process.]
[Sturino]: The Stone Diaries was a huge success for you. How did that feel? It was on the best-seller list for over a year, I think.
[Shields]: It still is, in fact. I'm just amazed. I had no expectations for anything like this.
Have you been doing a lot of readings related to that (i.e. readings from The Stone Diaries)?
I have done quite a few, now we're sort of at the end of that for a while until it comes out in the States, in paper-back in the spring, and I'll do just a little bit of it then.
Do you enjoy that type of thing?
Well, I don't enjoy traveling that much anymore; I've sort of fainted as far as traveling goes.
I read in an interview you did with Eleanor Watchel in 1989 for A Room of One's Own, and in that you described the period during which you wrote your first novel, Small Ceremonies as a very happy sort of time, and obviously Diaries was written many years later. That must have come from a very different place in your life; I'm wondering how the experiences of writing them compared? If it required a different sort of energy to write...
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SOURCE: "Auto/Biographical Fictions," in Canadian Literature, No. 144, Spring, 1995, pp. 173-74.
[In the review below, Fee examines narration and the theme of domesticity in The Stone Diaries.]
The Stone Diaries begins: "My mother's name was Mercy Stone Goodwill." Daisy Goodwill Flett appears to be telling the story of her life, beginning with the day of her birth, a birth which almost immediately leads to her mother's death. That this is a novel about the limitations of biography and autobiography is a point made in almost every review and publisher's summary of this novel, reinforced by the book's use of photographs, the family tree on the endpapers, the title, format and many direct comments on the subject. However, The Stone Diaries is, one must point out, a work of fiction, neither autobiography or biography (or it could not have been nominated for a Booker Prize or have won the Governor General's Award for Fiction!) Significantly, the book contains no photograph of Daisy herself, only of her relatives, husbands and friends. And in a sense, the narrative figures Daisy as a hole in a complex social network. Lying delirious with pneumonia at the age of 11, Daisy realizes that the world is going on without her and concludes "that if she was going to hold on to her life at all, she would have to rescue it by a primary act of imagination, supplementing, modifying, summoning up the necessary...
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Benedict, Elizabeth. "Below the Surface." The Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 April 1994): 3, 7.
Favorably reviews Happenstance and The Stone Diaries, noting that the latter work "has the scope of a Dickens novel, the wit of Muriel Spark and the stylistic inventiveness of Graham Swift's Waterland."
Casey, Constance. "The Times of Her Life." Book World—The Washington Post 24, No. 20 (15 May 1994): 5, 10.
Remarks on the themes of The Stone Diaries.
Clapp, Susannah. "Flowers and Fruit." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4717 (27 August 1993): 22.
Discusses theme and imagery in The Stone Diaries.
Denoon, Anne. "A Singular Life." Books in Canada XXII, No. 7 (October 1993): 32-3.
Comments on narration in The Stone Diaries.
Hughes, Kathryn. "Life Studies." New Statesman & Society 6, No. 266 (20 August 1993): 40.
Positive review. Hughes notes that throughout The Stone Diaries, "Shields holds fast to the conceit that this is no novel, but rather a documentary life of the type that became so central to recuperative feminist history in the 1970s."...
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