Carol Shields Shields, Carol (Vol. 91) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Anita Brookner (review date 4 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 the local stone quarry and had a gift for carving which was later to make him a renowned figure in the larger America to which he emigrated, was unable to care for the child, and handed her over to a neighbour, Mrs Clarentine Flett ('Aunt Clarentine') to be brought up.

The child came to no harm: no Freudian nightmares attended her, apart from the unavoidable sensation of solitude which filtered through as the years advanced. Indeed, what is remarkable about this narrative is that all the characters do well for themselves. Aunt Clarentine leaves her husband, moves in with her son Barker in Winnipeg, and starts a cut flower enterprise which flourishes. The illiterate Jewish pedlar who happened to be passing when the child was about to be born, and who pressed a foreign coin on the minutes'-old infant's forehead, summons up the...

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Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 9 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 is Daisy Goodwill. Her mother, Mercy Stone, dies in childbirth. Clarentine Flett, the next-door neighbour's fed-up wife, takes the baby and flees to Winnipeg 'with a dollar bill taken the night before from her husband's collar-box'. Reclaimed by her father, Daisy goes to Bloomington, Indiana, where in the Twenties stone-carvers are still needed. She marries a rich young goldhatted lover who throws himself out of a window; in 1936 she becomes the wife of Barker Flett, 22 years older than herself, an expert on hybrid grains. When her three children are grown she launches for the first time on a career—'working outside the home', as people said in those days; she becomes Mrs Green Thumb, the gardening consultant on the Ottawa Recorder. But the editor—who has taken fright at the idea that he might be expected to marry Daisy—gives her column back to a staffer. She takes a while to get over the resultant depression, but emerges in old age as a 'wearer of turquoise pants suits' in a condo in Sarasota, Florida. During her terminal illness she is moved to the Canary Palms Care Facility. Her last words (unspoken) are 'I am not at peace.'

I have summarised this plot to show how faultlessly Carol Shields has devised Daisy's story. It would in fact have been readily accepted, with a trivial change of ending, by the dear old Canadian Home Companion. Daisy is precisely what her son Warren calls her, 'a middle-class woman, a woman of moderate intelligence and medium-sized ego and average good luck", and Shields herself has said: 'I am interested in reality, in the texture of ordinary life, and the way people appear and relate.' The Stone Diaries could only have been written by an expert in sensuous detail, from the blood-drenched kitchen sofa where poor Mercy dies to Daisy's longing, as she recovers her nerve, for 'the feel of a new toothbrush against her gums, for instance. Such a little thing.' Shields also likes, she says, to write about survivors. Daisy Goodwill Flett surely survives for eighty years thanks to the overwhelming force of her ordinariness.

This, however, brings us to the most interesting though perhaps not the most successful element in the book. Daisy, member of the Mother's Union, the Arrowroots, Ottawa Horticultural Society, Bay Ladies' Craft Group (she even has a diploma in Liberal Arts somewhere, but can't remember which drawer she put it in), is also a closet Post-Modernist. Aware that her life is drifting harmlessly past her, she is determined to acquire power over it by standing apart and reporting on it as an independent witness. She begins with her birth. 'Why am I unable to look at it calmly? Because I long to bring symmetry to the various discordant elements, though I know before I begin that my efforts will seem a form of pleading.' She is aware, too, that 'the recording of life is a cheat' and that she will never be able to recount the whole truth. 'She understood that if she was going to hold onto her life at all, she would have to rescue it by a primary act...

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Geraldine Sherman (review date 2 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Claire Messud (review date 3 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Merna Summers (review date January-February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rhoda Koenig (review date 7 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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"...

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Jay Parini (review date 27 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Laura Van Tuyl Clayton (review date 30 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Allyson F. McGill (review date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carol Shields with Idella Sturino (interview date 9 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Margery Fee (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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