Carol Shields Shields, Carol (Vol. 193) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carol Shields 1935-2003

(Born Carol Ann Warner) Canadian-American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, biographer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Shields's career through 2003. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 91, 113.

Canadian-American writer Shields is best known for her highly celebrated novel The Stone Diaries (1993), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Canada's Governor General's Award. Shields, whose novels have achieved best-seller status, has been recognized for her experimental use of narrative form in fictions that examine the everyday lives of average men and women with honesty and compassion. Her recurring thematic concerns include personal identity and self-perception, as well as love, marriage, and family. Shields has stated in interviews that a central preoccupation running through her works is “the idea of women being fully human.” In an interview with Reuters, she commented, “I love the idea of home, and I think that is, in the end, what serious novels are about: the search for home.”

Biographical Information

Shields was born Carol Ann Warner on June 2, 1935, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a candy factory manager, she has described her childhood as an essentially stable and happy one. She attended Hanover College in Indiana, graduating with a B.A. in 1957. During a semester studying at Exeter University in England, she met Donald Shields, a Canadian graduate student whom she married upon completion of her college degree. The couple lived in Canada, and Shields worked as a homemaker, raising their five children while her husband pursued an academic career in engineering. During this time, Shields wrote several journalistic stories, which were sold to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). At the age of 33, she enrolled in the graduate program in English at the University of Ottawa, where she completed a thesis on the nineteenth-century Canadian writer Susanna Moodie, earning a master's degree in 1975. Shields's first book of poems, Others, was published in 1972. Small Ceremonies, her first novel, was published in 1976. Shields taught as a professor of English at the University of Manitoba from 1980 until 2000, and served as Chancellor of Winnipeg University from 1996 until 2000. Upon retirement, she moved with her husband to Victoria, in the British Columbia province of Canada. Shields died of cancer on July 16, 2003, at the age of sixty-eight.

Major Works

Shields's career as a fiction writer developed in two distinct phases. Her early novels and short stories were conventional in form, exploring themes of individual identity and interpersonal relationships. Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden (1977), Happenstance (1980), and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982) all belong to this first phase. Small Ceremonies concerns a married couple living in Canada during the 1970s. Both husband and wife are academics, and the wife's research for a biography reflects the interpersonal dynamics within the family. Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman are companion novels, relating the events of a single weekend, first from the point of view of the husband and then from that of the wife. While these early novels were well received by critics and popular with readers in Canada, Shields was not well known outside of Canada. In the second phase of her career, however, she developed a wider international readership. Mary Swann: A Mystery (1987; published as Mary Swann, 1990) and her subsequent novels maintain her early thematic concern with the everyday lives of everyday people, but are distinguished by bold experiments in narrative voice and form for which Shields has been widely celebrated. Mary Swann concerns the life and work of the fictional Mary Swann, a farmer's wife who lived in rural Ontario and published a single volume of poetry before she was murdered by her husband. Mary Swann is described from the perspective of four different narrators, for each of whom Swann's life and work takes on a different set of meanings. A final section of the novel brings together the voices of all four narrators in the form of a screenplay. Mary Swann was adapted to film as a major motion picture released in 1996. A Celibate Season (1991), co-written with Blanche Howard, is an epistolary novel, comprising the letters between a husband and wife over the course of one year during which they live one thousand miles apart, in Ottawa and Vancouver. Shields and Howard built their fictional narrative through a process in which Shields wrote the letters attributed to the husband and Howard wrote those of the wife. The Stone Diaries, Shields's most highly celebrated work, is a biography of the fictional Daisy Goodwill Flett, beginning with her birth in 1905, and following the course of her life over a period of eight decades. In the person of Daisy, Shields portrays the life of an ordinary woman, including marriages, deaths, children, and a brief stint as the writer of a newspaper gardening column. Through the use of both first-person and third-person narrative voices, Shields explores the tensions between Daisy's inner life and her outer life. Larry's Party (1997) centers on the protagonist's forty-seventh birthday party, revealing the story of his life through an examination of his interrelationships with friends and family. Like most of Shields's main characters, Larry is a rather ordinary man—except for the fact that he makes his living designing and building complex mazes out of shrubbery. The motif of the maze functions as a symbol for the complexity of both Larry's relationships with others and the structure of the narrative itself. Critics have noted that, while Daisy in The Stone Diaries represents a sort of Everywoman, Larry represents the Everyman. Diagnosed with cancer in 1998, Shields wrote Unless (2002) with the awareness that it was to be her last novel. Unless, set in the year 2000, is narrated as the interior monologue of Reta Winters, a forty-three-year-old novelist, happily married, with three teenaged children. Reta experiences unhappiness for the first time in her life when her nineteen-year-old daughter Nora suddenly drops out of university and takes to sleeping in homeless shelters and begging on the streets of Toronto with a sign around her neck that reads “Goodness.” In struggling to cope with this family crisis, Reta comes to the conclusion that her daughter has internalized the realization that women continue to be marginalized in modern society. Reta thus embarks on an intellectual journey of feminist consciousness-raising in an attempt to come to terms with her daughter's seemingly inexplicable behavior.

Critical Reception

Shields has been widely praised for elegant prose and skillful use of detailed description in depicting the everyday objects and quotidian actions of men and women leading outwardly unremarkable lives. Gail Godwin observed that Unless, like The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party, “presents itself, almost insistently, as a story about ordinary lives. But then, through her sensitive observations and exacting prose, the author proceeds to flip them over and show us their uncommon depths.” Shields has been called a “miniaturist” because of her close attention to the details of everyday lives; however, Shields herself has stated that critics who refer to her as a miniaturist are marginalizing her work by relegating it to the realm of domestic women's fiction. Critics have noted that Shields's best novels effectively capture the essence of an individual life with all of its elusive ambiguities. As Clare Colvin commented, Shields's novels “suggest that the pattern of people's lives is in the detail, which they are inclined to disregard as being not sufficiently important to count as living.” The Stone Diaries, for example, has been praised as a work that portrays the entire lifespan of an ordinary woman in a way that demonstrates the extraordinary qualities of even the most mundane lives. Critics have been especially impressed with Shields's experimental use of narrative structure and shifting point of view in her later novels. Her experiments with non-chronological narrative structure have been highly praised, in works such as Larry's Party, in which she utilizes an elliptical narrative structure that frequently doubles back on itself, while telling the story of one man's life from birth through middle age. Lynne Sharon Schwartz praised Shields's use of the maze in Larry's Party as a metaphor “for a life shaped, like most lives, by wrong turns and arbitrary choices, the frivolity of coincidence, the benighted promptings of will and destiny.” Reviewers praised Shields's explorations of the elusive nature of biography in works such as Mary Swann, in which different narrators attempt to reconstruct the life of a fictional dead poet, based only on incomplete and fragmentary information. Critics offered high praise for Shields's last novel, Unless, asserting that it is her most powerfully feminist work and explores the marginalization of women in a bold and honest way.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Others (poetry) 1972

Intersect (poetry) 1974

Small Ceremonies (novel) 1976

Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (criticism) 1976

The Box Garden (novel) 1977

Happenstance (novel) 1980

A Fairly Conventional Woman (novel) 1982

Various Miracles (short stories) 1985

*Mary Swann: A Mystery (novel) 1987; published in the United Kingdom as Mary Swann, 1990

The Orange Fish (short stories) 1989

A Celibate Season [with Blanche Howard] (novel) 1991

The Republic of Love (novel) 1992

Coming to Canada (poetry) 1992

Happenstance [includes Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman] (novels) 1993

The Stone Diaries (novel) 1993

Thirteen Hands (play) 1993

Larry's Party (novel) 1997

Anniversary [with David Williamson] (play) 1998

Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1998 [editor] (short stories) 1998

Dressing Up for the Carnival (short stories) 2000

Jane Austen (biography) 2001

Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told [co-editor, with Marjorie Anderson] (essays) 2001

Unless (novel) 2002

Dropped Threads 2: More of What We Aren't Told [co-editor, with Marjorie Anderson and Catherine Shields] (essays) 2003

*Also published in various editions as Swann: A Mystery and Swann: A Literary Mystery.

Kate Grimond (review date 12 February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grimond, Kate. “Putting the Hum in Humdrum.” Spectator 284, no. 8949 (12 February 2000): 33.

[In the following review of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Grimond asserts that Shields is at her best when describing details of everyday life, holding that the stories are varied, enjoyable, and contain elegant prose.]

A concert harp falling from an upstairs window knocks a young woman to the ground in the snow. It chips a fragment off a bone in her leg, and the unhappiness in her life is exposed. An elderly couple living placidly in the country are put under great strain when meteorologists go on strike and there is, as a consequence, no distinguishable...

(The entire section is 851 words.)

Margaret Walters (review date 25 February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walters, Margaret. “The Beckoning World.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5056 (25 February 2000): 21.

[In the following review, Walters praises Dressing Up for the Carnival as a fine collection of lively stories, and lauds Shields's use of vivid detail.]

The title story of Carol Shields's fine new collection, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is set in a small town, as people prepare for an evening's festivities. A girl chooses clothes, then out in the sunshine feels transformed: “no longer just Tamara, clerk-receptionist for the Youth Employment Bureau, but a woman in a yellow skirt. A passionate woman dressed in yellow. A Passionate, Vibrant...

(The entire section is 891 words.)

Ruth Scurr (review date 28 February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scurr, Ruth. “Not Quotidian.” New Statesman 13, no. 594 (28 February 2000): 58-9.

[In the following review of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Scurr comments on the thematic links within each story, maintaining that Shields is a powerful storyteller who uses an experimental narrative style and playful inventiveness in her stories.]

“Absence,” a story in Carol Shields's new collection [Dressing Up for the Carnival], echoes Georges Perec's La Disparition in both name and conceit. Famously, Perec set out to write a novel without using the letter “e” and succeeded. Shields matches him, discreetly, with a story about a writer and a...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Abby Frucht (review date 21 May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Frucht, Abby. “Between Rhapsody and Lamentation.” Washington Post (21 May 2000): 6.

[In the following review, Frucht asserts that Dressing Up for the Carnival is an important and highly entertaining work.]

Dressing Up for the Carnival is Pulitzer Prize-winner Carol Shields's third collection of stories and 12th work of fiction, and anyone who imagines that all this time the remarkable author of Larry's Party and The Stone Diaries has been holding back a few sparks of her peculiar genius is incorrect. It's not sparks but flames she's been tending in secret. These 22 stories emerge from a state of willful, artistic derangement in...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Lynne Sharon Schwartz (review date May/June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. “The Allures of Form.” New Leader 83, no. 2 (May/June 2000): 35-7.

[In the following review, Schwartz compares the stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival to Shields's novels, observing that the stories are more rooted in ideas than in character. ]

A spotlight on one book, however well-deserved, can cast the rest of a writer's work into shadow. Carol Shields, who has lived in Winnipeg for many years, is known to American readers for her 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Stone Diaries. But she is the author of eight earlier novels, and is a poet and playwright as well. To read her is to encounter a restive,...

(The entire section is 1863 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates (review date 29 June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “An Endangered Species.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 11 (29 June 2000): 38-41.

[In the following review, Oates discusses Shields's Dressing Up for the Carnival along with several other recent story collections by various authors. Oates comments that Shields's stories are intelligent, provocative, and entertaining.]

The short story is a minor art form that, in the hands of a very few practitioners, becomes major art. Its effect is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts. In isolation, striking and original as individual...

(The entire section is 6070 words.)

Donna Coates (review date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coates, Donna. “Re Marriage.” Canadian Literature, no. 164 (spring 2000): 175-76.

[In the following review of Happenstance, Coates discusses the role of employment and work in the lives of the two central characters.]

In a recent interview, Carol Shields confessed that she was “furious” when she came out of Four Weddings and a Funeral because “absolutely no one in that film had a job. People's work lives are written out of novels, too.” Shields never writes people's work lives out of her fiction, though; in Happenstance (1980) and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982), re-issued as the two-volume set Happenstance: Two...

(The entire section is 844 words.)

Douglas Glover (review date July/August 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Glover, Douglas. “Amiably Elegant Shields, Raw and Passionate York.” Canadian Forum 79, no. 890 (July/August 2000): 39-41.

[In the following excerpt, Glover maintains that the stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival are elegantly written but ultimately lacking in depth.]

Carol Shields's Dressing Up for the Carnival is a gentle, jocular, pixilated (the word comes from the old James Stewart movie Harvey about the rabbit only James Stewart can see) collection of short stories, some of which aren't exactly short stories in any conventional sense but rather riffs or variations on a theme or magical inventions or even sketches.


(The entire section is 739 words.)

Olivia Glazebrook (review date 2 September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Glazebrook, Olivia. “A Bicycle Not Made for Two.” Spectator 285, no. 8978 (2 September 2000): 36-7.

[In the following review, Glazebrook asserts that the two central characters in A Celibate Season are unsympathetic, and comments that the novel as a whole cannot overcome the limitations of the epistolary form.]

A happily married couple are forced to live 1,000 miles apart for one year only. Can their marriage survive?

It may sound like a new fly-on-the-wall docudrama for Channel Four, but this, in fact, is the premise of A Celibate Season. Financial circumstances force Charles and Jocelyn—or ‘Chas’ and ‘Jock’, as...

(The entire section is 607 words.)

Candice Rodd (review date 15 September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rodd, Candice. “Middle-Class Marital.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5085 (15 September 2000): 24.

[In the following review, Rodd asserts that A Celibate Season makes pleasurable use of the co-written epistolary form, but judges the story as complacent and lacking the depth of Shields's previous novels.]

This good-natured book [A Celibate Season], written in the early 1980s but only now available in Britain, is a curiosity on several counts. It is an epistolary novel of the old-fashioned kind that relies on stamps and postal delays rather than the quick-fire benefits of e-mail; it is a co-production by two little-known writers, one of whom...

(The entire section is 954 words.)

Lisa Allardice (review date 5 February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Allardice, Lisa. “Maiden Aunt.” New Statesman 14, no. 642 (5 February 2001): 51-2.

[In the following review, Allardice asserts that Shields's Jane Austen is a sincere and balanced biography that offers enlightening readings of Austen's work.]

Ever since Colin Firth strode out of the pond at Pemberley wearing skintight jodhpurs and a transparent shirt, in the latest BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen scholarship has never been the same. The much-loved maiden aunt of old has been banished to the cobwebs, and a racier, more experienced lady novelist has emerged in her place. In this brief biography [Jane Austen], the...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Jonathan Keates (review date 3 March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Keates, Jonathan. “Not So Plain Jane.” Spectator 286, no. 9004 (3 March 2001): 48.

[In the following review of Jane Austen, Keates praises Shields's depiction of Austen and her career, and values the focus within the biography on Austen's artistic development.]

Until recently, the popular image of Jane Austen's life was that of an untroubled idyll, led against Regency backdrops which combined English pastoral cosiness with the dash and frou-frou of Bath as portrayed for us on boxes of ‘Quality Street’ chocolates. She wasn't lucky with men of course, but then, cynics might argue, who is? Her death from an unspecified disease was premature and...

(The entire section is 846 words.)

Coral Ann Howells (essay date 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Howells, Coral Ann. “In the Subjunctive Mood: Carol Shields's Dressing Up for the Carnival.” In Yearbook of English Studies 31, pp. 144-54. Leeds, Eng.: Maney Publishing, 2001.

[In the following essay, Howells discusses two stories from the collection Dressing Up for the Carnival, asserting that Shields's writing displays “a subversive carnivalesque energy.”]

Diurnal surfaces could be observed by a fiction writer with a kind of deliberate squint, a squint that distorts but also sharpens beyond ordinary vision, bringing forward what might be called the subjunctive mode of one's self or others, a world of dreams and...

(The entire section is 5407 words.)

Rachel Cusk (review date 29 April 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cusk, Rachel. “My Heart Is Broken.” New Statesman 15, no. 704 (29 April 2002): 47-8.

[In the following review, Cusk offers high praise for Unless, calling it a remarkable novel about the realities of women's marginalized place in society.]

I have always taken a pleasure in Carol Shields's novels that was slightly indistinct. Perhaps it was her composure—the membrane of absolute competence around her prose that seemed also to be a form of reticence—which rendered the soul, the motivation of her writing, opaque. That isn't a criticism: reading Shields is like talking to a good friend, someone reassuring and wise who, out of modesty or sympathy,...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Sophie Ratcliffe (review date 3 May 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ratcliffe, Sophie. “Typing while the World Howls.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5170 (3 May 2002): 22.

[In the following review, Ratcliffe offers high praise for Unless, asserting that the story demonstrates Shields at her tragi-comic best.]

In a teasing gesture towards critics who have suggested that she “doesn't do sadness very well”, Carol Shields begins her latest novel [Unless] on a low note. Reta Winters has led a good life so far—three children, a career as a novelist and translator, and a happy marriage. But, as her opening sentence reveals, she is “going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now”. Reta...

(The entire section is 1262 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 4 May 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Women Talking to Women.” Spectator 288, no. 9065 (4 May 2002): 39-40.

[In the following review, Brookner assesses Unless as a charming novel that addresses the marginalization of women in society.]

It is hard to describe what makes this resolutely old-fashioned novel [Unless] so beguiling. Even the themes are old-fashioned: feminism, sisterly solidarity, a hippy search for purity (of a non-specific kind), and yet it keeps one reading on, slightly puzzled, to an old-fashioned happy ending, or at least a comfortable one. Perhaps its charm comes from its simplicity, a quality rarely encountered either in fiction or in the real...

(The entire section is 911 words.)

Ron Charles (review date 9 May 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “My Troubles Are Bigger than Your Troubles.” Christian Science Monitor 94, no. 16 (9 May 2002): 15-16.

[In the following review, Charles describes Unless as a mischievous monologue that is remarkably subtle and unsettling.]

You wouldn't expect it from her, but Carol Shields has written a naughty book. Put your yellow highlighter down: There's no sex, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Stone Diaries is doing something indecorous here—ribbing our notions of grief, even snickering at what inspires us.

Her latest novel, a mischievous monologue called Unless, begins with lamentations. Reta Winters...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Jane Ciabattari (review date 12 May 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ciabattari, Jane. “The Goodbye Girl.” Los Angeles Times (12 May 2002): 4.

[In the following review, Ciabattari judges Unless as a consummately poignant and artistic novel.]

Unless, Carol Shields' 10th novel, is a thing of beauty—lucidly written, artfully ordered, riddled with riddles and undergirded with dark layers of philosophical meditations upon the relative value of art, the realistic possibilities for women “who want only to be fully human” and the nature of goodness, that enduring human dilemma also worked thoroughly by Saul Bellow. What is goodness? How can goodness survive in the face of evil? How should a good woman—or...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

Faye Hammill (review date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hammill, Faye. “‘My Own Life Will Never Be Enough for Me’: Carol Shields as Biographer.” American Review of Canadian Studies 32, no. 1 (spring 2002): 143-48.

[In the following review of Jane Austen, Hammill comments that Shields provides a genuinely new perspective on Austen's life while highlighting the speculative nature of biography.]

My debt to Jane Austen herself is incalculable,” writes Carol Shields on the last page of her new biography [Jane Austen] of Austen (154). The biography sheds light on Shields's relationship to Austen, and it also offers a subtle exploration of the problems and pleasures of biographical research—a...

(The entire section is 2186 words.)

Laura Moss (review date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moss, Laura. “‘The Quotidian Is Where It's At.’” Canadian Literature 172 (spring 2002): 194-96.

[In the following review of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Moss comments that the best stories in the collection focus on love and marriage and highlight Shields's experimentation with narrative form.]

In her introductory remarks at a reading at the Harbourfront Reading Series in Toronto, Carol Shields remarked on her frustration at the critics' tendencies to focus on the “ordinary” in her works. In response to this incessant focus she read “Soup du Jour,” a story from her recent collection Dressing Up for the Carnival. The parodic story...

(The entire section is 1659 words.)

Nino Ricci (essay date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ricci, Nino. “A Tribute to Carol Shields.” Brick, no. 69 (spring 2002): 170-73.

[In the following essay, Ricci offers a personal account of her encounters with Shields as a fellow novelist. Ricci praises Shields's experimental narrative structure and shifting points of view in The Stone Diaries.]

I first met Carol Shields in the fall of 1990. That was the year my own first novel came out, and as part of the promotional activities for the book my publisher had arranged for me to do a reading at a small bookstore in Winnipeg.

Now it just so happened—and it has since been my experience that there are many things of this sort that just so...

(The entire section is 2241 words.)

Barbara Frey Waxman (essay date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Waxman, Barbara Frey. “A New Language of Aging: ‘Deep Play’ in Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries and Alison Lurie's The Last Resort.South Atlantic Review 67, no. 2 (spring 2002): 25-51.

[In the following essay, Waxman asserts that The Stone Diaries provides a fresh, positive, playful perspective on old age and death.]

Author May Sarton observed in 1973 that old age is a “foreign country” that Americans know little about—nor do they care to—until they must travel there themselves. Yet there is a growing clientele for this “foreign travel” and at age 54 I number myself among the travelers. I do not want to wait until age...

(The entire section is 9483 words.)

Elaine Showalter (review date 11 July 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “How to Be Good.” London Review of Books (11 July 2002): 13.

[In the following review, Showalter describes Unless as a novel that takes aesthetic and imaginative risks and debates questions of women's art and its reception.]

The debate about women's writing—is it too restricted, domestic and love-obsessed, in contrast to the more sweeping, historical, socially aware and experimental novels of men?—has been going on since Jane Austen's day. Charlotte Brontë was one who rejected Austen's plot, which she called ‘a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden’. Recently Gillian Beer even announced the death of the traditional...

(The entire section is 1825 words.)

Kate Sterns (review date summer 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sterns, Kate. “How Goodness Is.” Queen's Quarterly 109, no. 2 (summer 2002): 283-89.

[In the following review, Sterns asserts that a fundamental weakness of Unless is Shields's failure to adequately define or sufficiently explore her central thematic concern with the concept of goodness.]

One night, in 1981, when I was an undergraduate. I sat drinking with two friends in the bar of the Plaza Hotel in Kingston: Ontario. Unlike its ritzy counterpart in New York, this Plaza was a dive offering cheap booze and a suitably crepuscular atmosphere to the rough crowd who comprised its regular clientele, and cheap thrills to students, such as myself: tourists...

(The entire section is 2704 words.)

Sue Bond (review date 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bond, Sue. Review of Unless, by Carol Shields. Journal of Australian Studies, no. 75 (2002): 164-66.

[In the following review, Bond describes Unless as a powerful and funny novel that provides insight into the process of writing.]

unless, with its elegiac undertones, is a term used in logic, a word breathed by the hopeful or by writers of fiction wanting to prise open the crusted world and reveal another plane of being, which is similar in its geographical particulars and peopled by those who resemble ourselves.

(p 208)

So thinks the main character, Reta Winters,...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Mary Eagleton (essay date spring 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eagleton, Mary. “Carol Shields and Pierre Bourdieu: Reading Swann.Critique 44, no. 3 (spring 2003): 313-28.

[In the following essay, Eagleton applies the theories of French poststructuralist Pierre Bourdieu to a discussion of Shields's Swann as a work of metafiction.]

Carol Shields's Swann provides fertile ground for an exploration of issues relating to literary production, particularly women's literary production, and matters of sexual politics and the gendering of discourse figure prominently in the text. The novel has been read as a mystery; indeed, in various editions the full title appears as Swann: A Mystery or Swann:...

(The entire section is 7944 words.)

Clare Colvin (essay date 18 July 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Colvin, Clare. “Carol Shields.” Independent, no. 5226 (18 July 2003): 17.

[In the following obituary, Colvin provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.]

The success of Carol Shields' novels lies in the immaculate style of her writing and her feeling for the detail in everyday lives, together with a darker undercurrent that acknowledges how provisional is life itself.

Shields herself had to face the arbitrary nature of tragedy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, soon after winning the Orange Prize for her novel Larry's Party. After undergoing a mastectomy, she embarked on several courses of chemotherapy,...

(The entire section is 1156 words.)

Claudia Levy (essay date 18 July 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levy, Claudia. “Carol Shields, Acclaimed Novelist, Dies.” Washington Post (18 July 2003): B7.

[In the following obituary, Levy provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.]

Carol Shields, 68, whose empathetic and witty novels about the lives of ordinary people included the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries, died July 16 at her home in Victoria, B.C. She had breast cancer.

A native of Illinois who had lived in Canada since 1957, Mrs. Shields published her first novel at age 40. She soon became a respected author in her adopted country, but was relatively unknown in America until publication of The Stone...

(The entire section is 659 words.)

Dennis McLellan (essay date 18 July 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McLellan, Dennis. “Pulitzer-Winning Canadian Writer Explored the Lives of Everyday Women.” Los Angeles Times (18 July 2003): B12.

[In the following obituary, McLellan provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.]

Carol Shields, an acclaimed Canadian writer whose novel The Stone Diaries earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, has died. She was 68.

Shields, whose novels portrayed ordinary people, particularly women, in everyday situations, died Wednesday in Victoria, Canada, after a long battle with breast cancer.

Born in the United States, Shields was an English graduate of Hanover College in Indiana who moved...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)

W. M. Hagen (review date October-December 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hagen, W. M. Review of Unless, by Carol Shields. World Literature Today 77, nos. 3-4 (October-December 2003): 95-6.

[In the following review, Hagen lauds Shields's “realistic focus” on her characters's lives in Unless, maintaining that Shields “is one of our best” contemporary writers.]

Somewhere in the middle of her life [in Unless], Reta Winters is on tour in Washington, D.C., to promote her first novel. Bookstore signings are over, she has an afternoon free, so she visits no less than twenty boutiques in search of the perfect scarf for Norah, her oldest daughter. It will be a birthday gift for the very daughter who,...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Coyle, Jim. “Carol Shields Had a Unique Gift for Unravelling Life's Mysteries.” Toronto Star (19 July 2003): A21.

Coyle provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.

Dvorak, Marta. “Carol Shields and the Poetics of the Quotidian.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 38 (spring 2002): 57-71.

Dvorak offers a post-structuralist analysis of Shields's representations of everyday life in the stories of Dressing Up for the Carnival.

Ferguson, Sue. “Cries and Whispers.” Maclean's 116, no. 17 (28 April 2003): 50.

Ferguson praises the...

(The entire section is 266 words.)