Shields’s initial recognition as a novelist was the Arthur Ellis Award for best Canadian crime novel of 1987 for Swann: A Mystery (1987). Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1995, The Stone Diaries is the seventh novel by Shields, whose poetry, drama, essays, and travel writing are also recognized to be excellent. Her poetry, like much of her fiction, centers on familiar suburban experience, examining closely the effects of time within singular moments. Nor does the fact that she is a playwright surprise the reader of her novels; her scene-by-scene descriptions and believable dialogue suggest her works’ adaptability to stage or film. One of her plays, Thirteen Hands (1993), is about women who gather to play bridge and share stories. They are the older middle-class women who so often feel invisible in a culture obsessed with accoutrements of eternal youth and flashy possession. The play, like Shields’s novels, examines the ordinary caring among women.
Lest any reader decide that Shields writes “women’s fiction,” the critical reception of her novel after The Stone Diaries, Larry’s Party (1997), should disprove such an assumption. Her male protagonist, Larry Weller, moves through his own work and relationships, putting his past into meaningful context with his quiet and suburban present. In analyses of Weller, critics cite similarities to John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom.
The Stone Diaries well fits its late twentieth century audience: a novel of the ordinary, the uneventful, and the drama in small moments. The Stone Diaries succeeds because it portrays felt life, with particular emphasis on sensual minutiae and ordinary pleasures, issues of love, work, and identity recurring in Shields’s work. Readers gain personal insight from her studies of relationships, which are always ironically presented. Shields’s writing appeals to a populace increasingly oriented to the visual and increasingly in need of connection. She shows readers truths of their own and their parents’ lives.