Anita Brookner (review date 4 September 1993)
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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 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 courage to request a loan from the bank and ends up a millionaire with a network of hardware shops. Cuyler Goodwill, on the strength of a strange drystone tower he has built as a memorial to his wife, is headhunted by an international limestone concern in Bloomington, Indiana. Barker Flett, whom Daisy Flett knew as a child, and whom she subsequently marries, rises to a senior post in agricultural research. Somewhere along the way Daisy manages a contented life as a wife, mother, gardening correspondent for the local paper, and finally blue-rinsed bridgeplayer in Sarasota, Florida. There is of course that bleak insight which visited her unannounced some time in her later years and is still there—but it is almost a comfort now—as she lies dying.
I restrain myself from filling in the abundant details of this exemplary story (there is a formidable family tree served up, as if this were the Forsythe Saga) because the details are not allowed to encroach on the main thrust of the narrative, which is seamlessly developed. But there is one authorial addition which will be eagerly appropriated by many women writers compelled to make a fiction out of their autobiography, although as a genre this may well be out of date. I refer to the inclusion of a set of photographs, all suitably aged, and purporting to be of the characters in the novel. These look authentic, save for one instance, and one wonders whether the account might not be a true family history, until one reflects that Carol Shields, who can teach her younger sisters a thing or two, has probably acquired the photographs first—a job lot?—and constructed her novel around them. Whatever the genesis of the story, the photographs add potency to what is already a poignant mix of fact and fantasy.
Here is grim Hannah Goodwill, the graceless mother of Cuyler Goodwill, who put her savings in a jam jar, where the dollar bills grew soft and limp. Here is a flirtatious Aunt Clarentine, surely taken from one of the sentimental postcards that were amorous currency in 1916. Barker, with his loosely knotted tie, stares fixedly into space, while Mrs Flett's friend, Elfreda ('Fraidy') Hoyt, smiles invitingly through her kiss-curls. Various toddlers and adolescents, brought unerringly up to date, represent Mrs Flett's grandchildren, not all of whom figure in the story. This innocent device, unsignalled in the text, connects with everyone's recall of half-forgotten faces, perhaps unrecognised in old family albums, and resurrected only by the names inscribed beneath the photographs, perhaps by a hand consigned to memory, itself half forgotten.
This is principally a novel with an appeal to women readers, but of an altogether superior kind. It is also a novel about the acquisition of language. Cuyler Goodwill discovers language when making love to his wife, Daisy Flett through writing her gardening column, Magnus Flett (Aunt Clarentine's deserted husband) through reading Jane Eyre. Barker Flett, in his last letter to his wife, becomes eloquent only when dying. There is a dignity here which is unusual in these ruffianly times. There is also an optimism (all those millionaires). I found my response softening as I read on, although the leitmotif—the stone of the title, the limestone of the quarries—is a hard one. If durability is what finally counts in Mrs Flett's life it is also a quality which attaches to the novel itself. An impeccable performance.
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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."
Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 9 September 1993)
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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 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 of imagination, supplementing, modifying, summoning up the necessary connections, conjuring the pastoral or heroic or whatever … getting the details wrong occasionally, exaggerating or lying outright, inventing letters or conversations of impossible generality, or casting conjecture in a pretty light.' Very well, then, Daisy knows that she will have to do this, but now a narrator appears, in corrective mode, to tell us that she is often wider off the mark than she thinks. She has translated (for instance) her uncle's 'long brooding sexual state' into an attack of indigestion. Later, this same narrator tells us that Daisy's is the only account there is, 'written on air, written with imagination's invisible ink'. But we cannot trust her, since she insists on showing herself in a sunny light, 'hardly ever giving us a glimpse of those dark premonitions we all experience'. Indeed, after the loss of her gardening column Daisy's consciousness seems to disintegrate altogether, for a time leaving her friends and family to interpret the situation as best they can. (This is reminiscent of the method of Shields's brilliant literary mystery story, Mary Swann.)
The Stone Diaries, it seems, is a novel, among other things, about the limitations of autobiography. As far as Daisy is concerned, it never gets away from them, even when the narration changes from the first person in 1905 ('My mother's name was Mercy Stone Goodman. She was only 30 years old when she took sick') to the third person in 1916 ('the infant—a little girl of placid disposition—was clothed in a white tucked nainsook day slip'). All the change really does is to mark the last point when she can truly establish her identity, before her mother dies and she herself, new-hatched, begins to live. This failure to find a language—as she realises at the very end—frustrates heaven knows how many. Her eyes 'stare icy as marbles, wide open but seeing nothing, nothing, that is, but the deep, shared, common distress of men and women, and how little, finally, they are allowed to say'. Carol Shields, however, believes that women have been much harder done by, in this matter of silence, than men. It is of their limitations that she is thinking.
Daisy has something important in common with Mrs Morel in Sons and Lovers. 'Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one's history, and yet is not real, but leaves oneself as it were slurred over.' Mrs Morel sets herself to live through her sons, but Daisy does not even contemplate doing this. She makes her own sortie into the world of earning money and respect, is unkindly rejected, recovers, and maintains a certain dignity without asking help from anybody, 'and yet a kind of rancour underlies her existence still: the recognition that she belongs to no one.' Her children are moderately fond of her, her great-niece Victoria very fond. Victoria, in fact, bids fair to bring the whole book to a happy resolution. She is the daughter of a gone-astray niece whom Daisy has taken in, with her baby, out of pure good nature, and this baby has grown up to become a paleobotanist, classifying traces of fossil plants in the rock. In other words, Victoria combines Shields's stone and her plant imagery, just as Daisy Stone does when she becomes the well-liked gardening correspondent, Mrs Green Thumb. But here Daisy does not deceive herself. She is certain that none of her descendants will do more than look back on her with forbearance. This gives her a frightening feeling of inauthenticity.
In the process of growing up, of becoming a middle-aged woman and an old woman, Daisy has failed either to understand or to explain herself. If you were to ask her the story of her life, says the narrator, and one can hear the exasperated sigh, 'she would stutter out an edited hybrid version, handing it to you somewhat shyly, but without apology, without equivocation that is: this is what happened, she would say from the unreachable recesses of her 72 years, and this is what happened next.' She is accustomed to her own version, and so, sadly enough, are we, all of us, accustomed to ours.
An exception, of course, is the witty, cautious, sometimes lyrical narrator, who knows all the words, all the versions and all the weak places. For fear we might doubt the reality of her characters, convincing though they are, Shields supplies a section of attractive-looking, faded photographs of five generations. Daisy herself, as might be expected, doesn't appear, but by comparing the family snaps with the portrait on the back dust-jacket we can make out that Carol Shields must be the mother of Alice, the most difficult of Daisy's children. (Alice becomes an academic, whose first novel is everywhere unfavourably reviewed, But she is able to rise above this, because she knows she is making up her own life as she goes along.)
Talking recently at Edinburgh about her books and her motivation for writing them, Carol Shields spoke of her care to establish the narrator's credentials and said that Daisy's inability to express herself was the true subject of The Stone Diaries. This would make it the tragedy of someone incapable of being tragic. But the novel as it stands suggests something more complex. The publishers tell us that Daisy's signal achievement is to write herself out of her own story. 'Somewhere along the line she made the decision to live outside of events'—that is, to accept her own insignificance. But the reader is also asked to decide whether this is 'a triumphant act of resistance or a surrendering to circumstances'. In novelist's terms, did she do right or wrong? Daisy is described as summoning up her 'stone self' so that even her brain becomes transparent—'you can hold it up to the window and the light shines through. Empty, though, there's the catch.' She is shown as breathing her own death and contriving it, taking charge of it, in fact, as though in exasperation with what has so far been suppressed in her. If she is capable of this, there was no need, perhaps, for the narrator to pity her quite so much.
Carol Shields is asking us to play a game—a game for adults—but she is also playing it against herself. The epigraph, attributed to Alice's daughter, says that nothing Grandma Daisy did was quite what she meant to do.
but still her life
could be called a monument
and that, in the end, is what the novel makes her.
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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
Geraldine Sherman (review date 2 October 1993)
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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 the strain of the novel's high ambitions and overbearing technique.
The material is simply arranged in a series of milestones, chapters from Birth, 1905 to Death, 1985. Six generations of Goodwills and Fletts are shown on a detailed family tree, and there are eight pages of family photographs—men and women, young and old, dressed in bustles and bathing suits. One bright-eyed teen-ager, identified as "Lissa Taylor," born 1974, looks remarkably like the author herself.
What are we to think? Is Daisy Goodwill the real mother, or grandmother, of Carol Shields? Is this the story of her own family? A work of biography, autobiography, or fiction? Or is it, perhaps, all three, real and imagined events shuffled together, storytelling for "the documentary age" which, according to Shields, "can never get enough facts"?
Daisy's birth is brutal and unexpected. Her father, Cuyler Goodwill, a limestone cutter in rural Manitoba, doesn't know that Mercy, his bulky, kind-hearted wife, is pregnant. Neither, it seems, does she. One summer in 1905, in the presence of a neighbour and a passing Jewish pedlar, she falls to the kitchen floor, gives birth to a baby girl, and dies. Daisy is handed over to the neighbour, Mrs. Clarentine Flett, who moves to Winnipeg to live with her son Barker, a professor of botany, the man destined to marry the little girl he helps to raise.
Alone with his grief, Cuyler Goodwill erects a giant tower above his wife's grave, carving each piece of limestone with a hieroglyph illustrating their love. This rough-hewn Taj Mahal attracts sightseers from the city and brings him a lucrative job offer from a limestone company in Indiana.
Carol Shields loves characters like Cuyler, people able to create something beautiful in otherwise humdrum lives. Mrs. Flett, too, has the gift. She transforms her Winnipeg garden into a showplace and makes money selling flowers until she is struck and killed by a careless delivery boy.
When Cuyler takes his six-year-old daughter to the United States, he becomes obsessed with telling her his life story. "He felt, rightly, that he owed her a complete accounting for his years of absence. Owed her the whole story, his life prised out of the fossil field and brought up to light." Daisy, unfortunately, never finds her own voice, or it seems, her own face; her picture is notably absent from the family album. She passes through life like a baffled spectator, "outside events," something of a puzzle to her friends, a child to her husband, a shadow-figure to her own children. To her son she's simply a middle-class woman of moderate intelligence, a housewife who inherited her husband's gardening column and became, briefly, Mrs. Green Thumb. One of her daughters, sitting beside her deathbed, wants to ask her mother (but knows she mustn't), "Have you been happy in your life?"
Two world wars, the Depression, Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, and the birth of the Dionne quintuplets all flicker in the background of this domestic story. But large events play little part in Daisy's life. Far more important are the accumulated lists her children discover after her death, traces of her life in a series of messages—things to be done, the garden club luncheon menu, addresses, illnesses. "The recounting of a life is a cheat, of course," Shields writes. "I admit the truth of this; even our own stories are obscenely distorted."
Real life, unlike fiction, is messy and haphazard, explanations often elusive. But Shields hates loose ends; as a novelist (or biographer) she's overly eager to tie all the bits together. She takes too seriously the advice attributed to Chekhov; a gun pulled out in the first act must be fired by the third. The delivery boy, for example, who accidentally killed Clarentine Flett, returns as a guilt-ridden millionaire meatpacker who erects a glass-domed horticultural conservatory bearing his victim's name. We even pick up the story of the pedlar who witnessed Daisy's birth.
To hold our interest in Daisy's life and to extend the story's range, Shields inflates her language. She pumps up the metaphors until, literally and figuratively, no stone is left unturned. Despite its ambition and the Booker Prize nomination, The Stone Diaries fails in its attempt to break new ground.
Claire Messud (review date 3 October 1993)
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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 might not think worth recording. Already when sick and bedridden as a child, Daisy is conscious of the magnitude of her undertaking: "That was what kept coming back to her as she lay in her hot, darkened room: the knowledge that here, this place, was where she would continue to live all her life—blinded, throttled, erased from the record of her own existence …"
In this world, Shields suggests, in an ordinary life, the imagination can offer redemption. Perhaps it is enough; it is, in the end, all we are left with: Daisy "is not always reliable when it comes to the details of her life. Still, hers is the only account there is, written on air, written with imagination's invisible ink." But Daisy can and does wish for more than that: in her seventies she seeks, in tracing her father-in-law's footsteps back to the Orkney islands, to find someone who has imagined her life, and in so doing, made it real, in the way that she has imagined her mother's life, or her father's. But even she knows ahead of time that her mission is destined for disappointment.
This said, Shields, if not quite like Daisy ("one of life's fortunates, a woman born with a voice that lacks a tragic register"), is nonetheless a writer who, while acknowledging the bathos of tragedy, will not allow it to triumph. Unbeknownst to Daisy, Shields has ensured that she does have witnesses: not only the pedlar who blesses her at birth and passes on the story of her arrival to his children; but also Shields herself, and Shields' readers.
The principal images which she weaves through the book of Daisy's life are of flowers and of stone. The former, like Daisy (a flower herself), are destined to pass from this earth but they are regenerative. And the latter, like the human will and the redemptive power of the imagination, are indestructible.
The Stone Diaries—one of this year's Booker nominees—is a work of great but unconventional ambition which succeeds in almost all that it attempts.
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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."
Pool, Gail. "Imagination's Invisible Ink." The Women's Review of Books XI, No. 8 (May 1994): 20.
Favorable review of Happenstance and The Stone Diaries, which Pool describes as "an intricate novel and complex commentary on living and telling lives."
Turbide, Diane. "A Prairie Pulitzer." Macleans 108, No. 18 (1 May 1995): 76-7.
Comments on the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to Shields for The Stone Diaries and her success as a novelist.
Merna Summers (review date January-February 1994)
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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".
Human beings are defined as much by the things that don't happen to them as by the things that do, and part of what Shields is doing here is honouring the restricted life, declaring that attention must be paid to the lives of women like Daisy.
Daisy Goodwill lived in an era when women were expected to make the best of things, not to ask for too much for themselves. If each woman in her time plays many parts, Daisy's roles were chiefly those of "daughter of", "wife of", and "mother of". Later, in a brilliantly rendered old age, Daisy is troubled by the "deep, shared common distress of men and women, and how little they are allowed, finally, to say".
The Stone Diaries is a great outpouring of a novel, full of acute insights, generous in spirit and managing to turn our attention in directions it had not thought of going before. There are enough surprising stories, sharply sketched characters and entertaining and eccentric details to fill a dozen novels.
Shields' characters paint their own portraits in thought and action. One thinks of love as "mostly the avoidance of hurt". Another never wants to be surprised by life. Still another reflects that: "A childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves no fossils."
There are images of fossils and of stones everywhere in this novel, but there are also green things growing, flowers being brought to bloom. These things are metaphors, but elusive ones. Does stone encase the dead? Is it a symbol of permanence? Do men build things to last, in stone, while women cultivate beauty that is transitory? Partly, but it is never quite as tidy as that. The reader is given considerable freedom to play with the resonances.
In middle age, Daisy Flett takes over her dead husband's gardening column for the local paper—writing under the name of "Mrs. Green Thumb"—and discovers that this work is deeply meaningful to her. "It was as though she had veered, accidentally, into her own life," her daughter says.
The most painful part of Daisy's life—or so one assumes from the "traces" recorded here—is not the dislocation of her childhood, nor her marriage to a boorish and masochistic young man who "longs for correction, for love like a scalpel". It is the loss of her work. When the newspaper decides to let a staffer take over her gardening column, Daisy—for the only time in her life—puts up a fight. When she loses the battle, she sinks into depression, and then old age.
One suspects that it is Shields' elegance as a writer, as well as her brio, that has won her such a high level of recognition in England. There is not a page in this novel that does not delight, does not contain something quotable. There are opening sequences that are worthy of a Jane Austen:
Barker Flett at thirty-three is stooped of shoulder and sad of expression, but women who set eyes on him think: now here is a man who might easily be made happy.
It is this author's habit of paying humorous and loving attention to her characters that her readers value most of all in her work. Carol Shields demonstrates there are no small lives, no lives out of which significance does not shine. She makes us aware that banality, ultimately, is in the eye of the beholder.
Rhoda Koenig (review date 7 March 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1028
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 the gals, having her hair permed until it's "springy as Easter basket grass." She loathes the word feisty, but personifies it: A young man asks her if he should tell his mother he is gay. When she urges him to button his lip, he protests, "But I can't go on living a lie." "Why not?" says Daisy. "Most people do."
Daisy's own lie is the popular one that love, or even intimacy, naturally arises from years of tender association. She regards her elderly husband with benign detachment; he never speaks to her of his feelings until after he is dead: "Do you remember," he says in a letter found at his hospital bed, "that day last October when I experienced my first terrible headache? I found you in the kitchen wearing one of those new and dreadful plastic aprons. You put your arms around me at once and reached up to smooth my temples. I loved you terribly at that moment. The crackling of your apron against my body seemed like an operatic response to the longings which even then I felt. It was like something whispering at us to hurry, to stop wasting time." Daisy's grown daughter, at her mother's deathbed, wants to ask her, "'Have you had moments of genuine ecstasy? Has it been worth it?'… Instead they speak of apple juice, gravy, screams in the corridor." Her children state, in their death notice of this passionate gardener, "Flowers gratefully declined."
Carol Shields complicates her picture of this simple life with multiple angles, shifting perspectives. Daisy's relatives and colleagues, her flapper school friend who has had "fifty-three lovers, possibly fifty-four," weigh in with letters and testimony; the novel contains poems, family photographs, and grocery lists, and closes, as it begins, with a recipe. Yet, while giving the story density, this approach also adds a sense of contrivance, the Olympian at times jarring with the homely rather than enhancing it. Shields's in-your-face metaphor (Daisy's father builds monuments of stone; her grandniece studies fossil plants; on a trip to Scotland, Daisy visits cemeteries and rock formations) can also feel too heavily overlaid on its subjects, more of a comment on their condition than a fact of their nature.
For the most part, however, this is a novel of innumerable small but genuine pleasures. Shields finds the poetry in domestic life but maintains a tone of astringency as well as regret over the way it can build us a comfortable cage. "Now there's a woman," reads one of the many epitaphs of Daisy Goodwill, "who made a terrific meatloaf, who knew how to repot a drooping rubber plant, who bid a smart no-trump hand, who wore a hat well, who looked after her personal hygiene, who wrote her thank-you notes promptly … who missed the point."
Jay Parini (review date 27 March 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1262
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 real, never mind how suspect it sounds, we honor it," writes one of Ms. Shields's several diarists. "But when a thing is made up—regardless of how true and just it seems—we turn up our noses. That's the age we live in. The documentary age."
So the novelist inserts her tongue deeply into her cheek and documents everything. But unlike the historian, who must cling to the enameled outer layer of reality, Ms. Shields plunges into the interior life of her characters with all the ferocity of a major novelist. As her readers, we are allowed to peer into the hearts of Daisy Flett and her family with gaudy indiscretion, and this voyeurism is at times unsettling. Humankind, as T. S. Eliot noted, cannot bear very much reality.
Poor Daisy, our hapless flower, arrives in this world in the least hospitable of circumstances. Her mother the absurdly fat Mercy Stone, expires at the moment of Daisy's birth. Before she does, however, there is plenty of time for Ms. Shields to offer a startling portrait of the erotic life of Mercy and her uxorious husband, Cuyler Goodwill. He is a stone mason (all puns are probably intentional) whose creative energies were focused on his profession until he was 26, when he stunned the small Manitoba community (and himself) by marrying an obese orphan. He revels in Mercy's vast regions of pink flesh: "He is not repelled by the trembling generosity of her arms and thighs and breasts, not at all; he wants to bury himself in her exalting abundance, as though, deprived all his life of flesh, he will now never get enough. He knows that without the comfort of Mercy Stone's lavish body he would never have learned to feel the reality of the world or understand the particularities of sense and reflection that others have taken as their right."
Here, as in her previous fiction, Ms. Shields writes with an almost painfully attuned ear for the nuances of language and the way they attach to feelings and probe the most delicate layers of human consciousness. Her words ring like stones in a brook, chilled and perfected; the syntax rushes like water, tumbling with the slight forward tilt that makes for narrative. The reader is caught in whirlpools and eddies, swirled, then launched farther downstream.
After her mother's death, Daisy is adopted by a neighbor, Clarentine Flett, who is about to leave her husband, Magnus, a dour immigrant from the Orkney Islands. Clarentine moves with the infant Daisy to live with her son Barker in Winnipeg, where a cozy family group is established. Barker becomes one of the major figures in Daisy's life: guardian, then—after a lapse of decades—husband. A botanist, he is obsessed with "the western lady's-slipper, genus Cypripedium," thus sublimating his most primitive urges. The intensity of his gaze on this particular organism summons other complex longings, and botanical metaphors abound as the author lets one narrative strand lengthen and twine with others.
Cuyler Goodwill eventually flees Canada and the memory of his poor dead Mercy to Bloomington, Ind., where his talents as a stone cutter are in demand. He becomes a pillar of the community and a moderately wealthy man. The course of his life is summarized by his daughter: "In his 20's he was a captive of Eros, in his 30's he belonged to God, and, still later, to Art. Now, in his 50's, he champions Commerce." He is eloquent if somewhat voluble, given to saying things like, "The miracle of stone is that a rigid, inert mass can be lifted out of the ground and given wings." We follow his life tangentially through his daughter's eyes, right up to the splendid scene of his death beside a lake in spring.
As he lies "on a patch of Indiana grass like a window screen about to be rinsed off by the garden hose," he comes to a lovely sense of his place in the scheme of creation. In a touching moment, he fights through the gauze of a failing memory to recall the name of his beloved Mercy, at last finding it. "Ah, Mercy," he says to himself. "Mercy, hold me in your soft arms, cover me with your body, keep me warm."
The diaries leap from decade to decade, tracing the stages of Daisy's life: her first, tragic marriage to a boy from Bloomington, her second marriage to her old guardian, Barker, and the birth of her children. The fact that her life fits the familiar contours is, somehow, refreshing: Daisy is Everywoman, and her crises are the normal ones. "The real troubles in this world tend to settle on the misalignment between men and women," the diarist tells us as she discovers something like love with Barker Flett. Daisy's own "misalignment," in particular, is evoked with inspired circumspection, not only from her own point of view but from others' as well.
Barker, who has been turned into a "voyeur in his own life" after "decades of parched solitude," meditates on his relationship to Daisy as they fall asleep:
Is this what love is, he wonders, this substance that lies so pressingly between them, so neutral in color yet so palpable it need never be mentioned? Or is love something less, something slippery and odorless, a transparent gas riding through the world on the back of a breeze, or else—and this is what he more and more believes—just a word trying to remember another word.
The novel ends with the death of Daisy as images are torn from a long life and pinned to the spinning wheel of her mind. Fragments of overheard conversation cross the page—disembodied, eerily displaced; lost recipes, bits of official paper, shopping lists, book titles: the disjecta membra of a life float by. Slipping in and out of a coma toward the end, she begins to imagine her own extinction: "You might say that she breathed it into existence, then fell in love with it."
There is little in the way of conventional plot here, but its absence does nothing to diminish the narrative compulsion of this novel. Carol Shields has explored the mysteries of life with abandon, taking unusual risks along the way. The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.
Laura Van Tuyl Clayton (review date 30 March 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822
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, wifely duty, and civic responsibility.
As the years roll by, Daisy's outward life appears to be increasingly at odds with an inner life of secrets and hidden yearnings. Like the flower garden and house plants she expertly nurtures, Daisy has fundamental needs, but sadly, they go unnoticed by those around her (and even by herself at times).
The Stone Diaries, nominated for Britain's Booker Prize, unfolds exquisitely through a mixture of first and third person narratives, letters, newspaper clippings—even recipes and short poems. A family tree and several pages of reproduced family photos lend an amusing air of authenticity.
Flashbacks, intentional digressions, and gaps in the plot never confuse the reader, but intensify the novel's central theme: What is the story of a life and who is qualified to tell it? Even Daisy herself admits to the reader that she is unreliable with details and subject to exaggeration.
At one point, after Daisy's husband dies, she becomes a successful gardening columnist for the city paper. Household chores become less important, and one senses she is at last beginning to live for herself, to write her own story. Touching letters from her faithful readers show she's making real and authentic connections to others.
When the editor abruptly hands over the column to a male employee of senior status (but vastly inferior talent), Daisy enters a period of depression and physical decline. No one is able to help her. Or, perhaps, she isn't allowing anyone to help. The last thing the wants to hear is "everything's going to be OK." She wants to write her own story.
One is never sure, however, whether Daisy truly has the courage to live for herself.
We follow her past this crisis and into her retirement days in Sarasota, Fla., where she plays out "the story" of widowhood as the world tells it—ease, bridge games, shuffle-board, and health problems.
The lush gardens and botanical richness that decorated and sustained Daisy's life metaphorically give way in her last moments as she imagines herself turning inch by inch into cold stone. Not even Christian beliefs of salvation hold any solace. Her death is as haunting as her birth, which was similarly tragic and physically agonizing.
Shields smoothly weaves into the story interesting snippets of the advancing century—world wars, the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.
Daisy one time stops in Callander, Ontario, to gawk with other tourists at the Dionne quintuplets at play in their yard. In a telling moment, she becomes filled with indignation at the absurdity of the scene and how society so quickly glances at a person's life and sums it all up.
Shields, an American, has spent most of her life in Canada and invests this tale with an appreciation of its people and history.
Having raised five children before becoming a professional writer, she is penetrating in her gaze when it comes to traditional "women's work"—cooking, cleaning, child rearing—never belittling, but always searching for the woman behind it.
Still, The Stone Diaries is more than a woman's tale. Though there are moments of happiness and humor along the way, it is ultimately a story of lost opportunities and loneliness.
It looks beyond the accumulation of events, dates, and sterile facts a diary so faithfully records, to 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.
The author's outlook may be less than comforting, but it forces to the surface emotions that stir and rarefy, rather than merely titillate.
Allyson F. McGill (review date Fall 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923
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, Cuyler—gives birth in her kitchen on a blazingly hot day, not knowing until the baby comes that she is pregnant, and dying even as her daughter draws a first breath.
Daisy's life is extraordinary as it follows the familiar trajectory of birth, adolescence, marriage, motherhood, old age, and death. She is raised by a neighbor woman, Clarentine, who, having reached the midpoint of her own life, recognizes the emptiness of her marriage and decamps with the baby to Winnipeg. There they move in on the solitary life of her son, Barker, a botany professor. So do lives suddenly change, with resounding repercussions.
From the quarry's dust to her surrogate mother's lush gardens, Daisy's life returns to stone when her father reclaims her in adolescence, and they move to Bloomington, Indiana, from whose limestone will rise the Empire State Building and the gleaming buildings of Washington, D.C. In Bloomington Daisy grows to young womanhood and marries the pick of the town's youths, only to discover that he is an alcoholic and watch him plunge to his death on their honeymoon. Hers is a life where routine events are touched by the grotesque. It is Daisy's awareness of this and her growing realization of her motherless and thus anchorless state that propel her back to Winnipeg and Barker when her loneliness becomes unbearable. It is also what inspires her to write her life story.
But what is our life story? "Biography, even autobiography, is full of systematic error, of holes that connect like a tangle of underground streams," Daisy warns us, forcing us to question her story's validity. She imagines her birth and, decades apart, her parents' deaths. She concocts the life of Clarentine's husband after his abandonment in images that are both absurd and heartbreaking. But these are her fantasies, not eyewitness accounts, and in reading Daisy's "autobiography" we begin to question our own assumptions about the lives of people all around us. What is it we glimpse, what is always kept hidden from us, and what really motivates the human heart?
Daisy's questioning is as much self-directed. By writing her life in the third person she becomes her own observer, knowing that the outer person and the inner self often diverge. And Daisy, born in 1905, is a product of her generation, that peculiar hybrid person who, brought up Victorian, must undergo bewildering transformations as society changes its rules with seemingly lightning speed. In the space of one lifetime a tightly corsetted girl with plaited hair and long skirts can metamorphosize into the polyester bridge-player who instead of cash carries credit cards in her purse.
Such appearances signify the duality of Daisy's life: the spirit within unable to find true expression in the conventions allowed to her. There is a note of pathos running throughout Daisy's narrative, the sense that both she and her culture are boxing her in. She recognizes this, perhaps through the very act of writing her own story: "The larger loneliness of our lives evolves from our unwillingness to spend ourselves, stir ourselves. We are always damping down our inner weather, permitting ourselves the comforts of postponements, of rehearsals." Is it that life is ultimately disappointing? Or that life's inevitable disappointments are mitigated by moments of pleasure, even joy? The seemingly mundane in Shields's world is continually irradiated by love: Cuyler's for Mercy; Clarentine's, and later Barker's, for Daisy. Out of a marriage of love dulled by familiarity come moments of rare poetry and the added poignancy of love's depth revealed after death. It is all mixed up together: lives that are too brief side by side with the love of people long together; grief at sudden loss and the lingering regret of words unsaid when a long life ends; the equal portions of sadness and grace when we recognize what we have. We take so much for granted. 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. We create our lives as much as they are created for us, and then we recreate it all in our retelling.
Carol Shields with Idella Sturino (interview date 9 December 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2770
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 Diaries?
Well, probably it did, because my life is very different now because my children have grown up, but I loved writing that book (The Stone Diaries); I was conscious of that … I don't always, I often find it terribly hard work and I put off getting down to it, but for some reason I loved writing that one. And I think because, once I found the structure, my chapters and so on, I felt it was going well, and I always felt it was about something important. I was never quite sure what the thing was, but it seemed to me it was about something important. So it was different of course, because I have a lot more time now to write. But I still produce at about the same rate. It took me two years to write the book. That seems …
Does that seem quick to you?
Yes, I think so.
It seemed to go steadily, I never got stuck.
You mentioned, about the first novel I think, that you would sit down and write two pages a day, that it took you nine months. Did you find yourself on that same sort of schedule?
Yes, except … now it seems to take two years instead of nine months, even though I have more time, and partly it's because I'm teaching and have other obligations and have more interruptions, and maybe I'm not as disciplined as I was then.
You said that the structure (of Diaries) was something you were really happy about, and I loved the structure of the book, it was so different. I'm wondering where you thought of that idea?
Well, you know, I love those old nineteenth century biographies and that's how they structure them. They have a chapter on birth, childhood, marriage, just really more or less the chapter headings that I used. And I wanted mine to be just slightly off, you know, a little bit slant, but to use those old ones to kind of gesture back to that nineteenth century biography.
It worked, it really did.
Are you working on anything right now?
Well, I'm just at the beginning of a novel. And I've done the film script for The Republic of Love. So that was what I worked on this year.
Wow, that's great. When will that be coming out?
Well, it isn't even in production yet, but apparently everything is ready to roll soon, so who knows. It's quite a different business that writing a book and sending it to your publisher.
Is there a genre that you are more comfortable writing in? Do you feel more comfortable writing poetry than fiction?
Oh, certainly, writing fiction, writing novels.
Novels as opposed to short fiction?
I think so.
How do you write? When you're set in that mode, do you listen to music or do you only write at certain times of the day? Do you find yourself writing only under certain conditions?
No, well, these days … I used to write at home …
You don't now?
No, well, not as much. I mostly go to the university where I have an office, and just shut the door and try to spend half my day, the first half, writing. The second half is always consumed with mail and other tasks taken on. But I do try to get back to it late in the afternoon, to go over it again, what I've done for that day. And you know I'm still a very modest producer, maybe two, sometimes on a very good day I can do three pages. But I try not to go racing ahead, I go fairly slowly, and I tend to—it hasn't always worked so neatly—but I tend to start at the beginning and write through this way. Sometimes I find I have to go back and write a different beginning, but I try to feel my way as I go. And when I'm not writing, of course, I'm thinking about it, or talking about it. I talked about The Stone Diaries a lot to other people while I was writing it, and tried to find out what old age felt like, for example. Or I would try to talk to my colleagues at lunch about—I'm very interested in phrases from different decades—so it was fun to talk and chat with them about what they remembered. So I just loved all that.
When you were young you read a lot, and in the same interview that I mentioned earlier, you said that almost all of the books you read came from the library. I imagine by this point you have a little library of your own. I'm wondering, if you had to pick a favourite title of a book, or a favourite author off your shelf, what that would be?
As a child?
Well, I love the poet Philip Larkin, so I sometimes take that down from the shelf. And of course I like anything by Alice Munro, so I have all her books, I can see them from here.
You've been compared to her.
Well, we're very different writers. I think when we're compared it's because we're both Canadians (she laughs), and we're both women, about the same age.
I guess that narrows the choices for comparison down.
Do you see your work as influenced by certain writers?
Oh, I've probably been influenced by every writer I've ever read, I would think.
But not particularly one?
No, I wouldn't say particularly one, but I certainly think that other writers can show you what's possible, you know, what's allowed. And what's wonderful, when that happens.
Is there a piece of advice you can offer to young writers?
Oh, I love to give advice.
Good. It's such a cliche question, but …
Well, I certainly think reading is the way, and reading attentively, and reading to find out how the novels that you like are put together. And then I think that the novel you should try to write, or the book you should write, is the book that you can't find. The book you'd love to have, you know, so that if you imagine you're in bed with the flu, what would be the book that you'd want to read. And then write that book. I think there's a certain amount of sense to that.
Diaries is set up as an autobiographical narrative, but the first-person narrative slips into the third and also the book contains pictures which convey that biographical idea. This is a theme that's constantly talked about in the reviews of the book, this sort of tension between the subjective and objective. Why was this important for you? I've noticed in some of your short stories a similar theme.
Yes. In fact, in my early novels, the first novel I wrote, for example, is about a woman writing a biography (Small Ceremonies). I guess I'm just interested in how people tell their life stories, or if it's even possible to tell your life story. It wasn't something I set out to write about, it was something I found myself writing about.
Do you think that in telling life stories we re-invent ourselves? There's a phrase in the book about that.
I think people do re-invent themselves, so that's part of the life story. I'm told by some of my friends that in fact I'm wrong about this, that the personality is set at age, whatever, four or five. But I don't believe it. I simply don't believe it. I think that people make efforts to change themselves, and also events occur that change one, and responsibilities. You know, anyone who has children tells you that having children changes you enormously.
I had a teacher once who said that our perceptions of ourselves are very much defined by how others perceive us. This seems very applicable to Daisy. She seems very much defined for us, and for herself, by how other people perceive her. How does this sort of idea play itself out for you in your writing?
Well, I think I see it all around me. When I read the obituaries I always see women as defined as the wife of, the loving grandmother of, and so on. So I think traditionally women have been defined by other people rather than making their own definitions. I certainly see this as something that has inhibited women and their willingness to engage with the world.
I see it as time appropriate too …
The recurring images in this book are of stone, flower and light. How are these important?
I hadn't realized light was a recurring image.
Not as much, I think …
The book started with this love I have of stone, especially limestone. I'm interested in limestone because it's an inorganic material that's made of organic material, it's made of sea creatures, actually, that have been crushed and cemented together. So there's something about the metaphor, of the organic and the inorganic, the expressed and the unexpressed, that I liked. Why flowers? It's hard to say. I don't know quite how, but I did see it slipping in as a kind of second spine, as it were. But I was very anxious that flowers not represent women, and stone men. I wanted to scramble that representation.
Well, it certainly was scrambled, we saw that with Daisy's husband.
Daisy is very shaped by her orphanhood, and it seems she is always searching for that sense of home. What made you decide to use that theme?
To make her an orphan?
Yes, because it's such an important part of who she is.
Yes, of course she's very specifically an orphan, but I suppose you could say there's a sense in which we are all alone in the world, and always conscious of the absence of what we were once directly attached to. I also love the idea of someone having a child who didn't know she was pregnant. I've always followed those accounts in the newspaper, there's usually one or two a year. I'm just interested in that whole phenomenon, why it happens, so I just wanted to write about that.
Do you often get ideas like that, from newspapers?
One of the other things about Daisy is that it seems that the story you're telling about her is one that isn't usually told. She's very recognizable and common in a lot of ways: I read a review that called her a sort of "everywoman" for her context, her time and class, and so on … I know you're interested in writing about the lives of women. How much were you trying to sort of unearth untold lives of women like Daisy, women like my grandmother …?
I've seen this reference to an "everywoman" too, and I don't know quite what it means, or whether I should accept that or not. I was certainly never conscious of that. But I guess I am interested in the notion of fiction as redemption, and it seems to me that that's a part of our society that hasn't been redeemed—women who don't have a public life, who belong to bridge clubs, who don't even have a working life, who are just women in our society. I wrote a play that was produced years ago called Thirteen Hands and I guess it's just something I'm thinking about as I'm getting older, or thinking about my mother's life, or all those millions of lives that somehow were never realized. And then, of course, the question begs itself of, well, maybe they were in ways. I don't know. So I was just interested in all that part of life.
In Thirteen Hands, one thing that struck me—and I think this comes out in some of your other writing as well—was in the bonds of friendship, how for the women you write about they are such an important support system, in a way a life-support system.
Yes, I'm fascinated by that. Women friendship has been very important in my life, it has always been important. You know, I'm still in touch with my old childhood friends, and friends from high school, always women, because women of my generation didn't have men friends. So, yes, it is something that I wanted to write about, and I think it is what sustains Daisy in her life, one of the things that sustains her.
Do you think that for characters you might draw from a present-day context, that friendship with women would be something which would still be as important to them? Or do you see it, as you mentioned, as a result of the fact that women in Daisy's time just didn't have male friends?
I don't know. I look at my daughters, who are young women now, and I think their friendships with women are very important too. I see it not as something that is over, or lost.
One of the things you mentioned in an interview I read was that you specifically want to write about women you can recognize, and this was one of the most pleasurable things for me about reading Diaries, was that I could recognize my grandmother and my mother throughout. How much of it was drawn from memories of your own maternal figures?
Surprisingly, not very much, directly. I suppose I drew indirectly on memories, not particularly of my mother, or my mother-in-law, but about the kind of world they inhabited. Naturally, I've had access to that world through them and through their friends, and of course I'm still part of this. A lot of women my age are doing exactly what Daisy did in her life, which was not very much, as we measure those accomplishments.
You've probably done so many interviews, more than you can count, and I'm wondering if there's one question as a writer that you would really like to be asked that you aren't, usually, or that interviewers just never seem to come up with?
(laughs) Actually, I was signing books in a shopping mall a couple of weeks ago in Toronto, and a woman asked me a question that no one else had asked me. And it comes up in the last chapter … it's a little paragraph about Daisy missing the point of it all, missing the point of her own life. And this woman came up to me; she was a woman of, I'd say, about thirty or thirty-five, and she was a little bit distraught and she opened the book and she said, "I want you to explain something to me." So, she pointed this out, and she said, "I think I've missed the point. What is the point?" (laughs) So it stopped me, because no one had asked me that question. I guess the big existential question, "Why are we in life and what are our lives to mean?" Of course, that's a question I can't answer. I have a friend … who's a writer, and we often talk on these things, and she has promised me that the minute she finds out what the point of it all is, that she'll send me a fax … so I'm waiting!
Margery Fee (review date Spring 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1236
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 connections, conjuring the pastoral or heroic or whatever … getting the details wrong occasionally, exaggerating or lying outright…."
Thus, the narration itself is highlighted. The reader quickly realizes that Daisy, the ostensible narrator, could only have been present in the first scene in the novel in the most vestigial way, as a bloodied bundle squeezed out by a woman who may never have realized she was pregnant. "Blood and ignorance, what can be shaped from blood and ignorance" asks the narrator. What can we know even of ourselves, let alone the impenetrable mysteries posed by lovers, spouses, parents and children, despite the closest of biological and emotional ties? There is no "thyself" to know, even in retrospect. Thus it is ironic that Daisy's description of the time just preceding her own birth, an account of her young, overweight mother making Malvern Pudding on a sticky summer day, is one of the most sensual and striking in the novel, filled with images of heat, fruit, cream, flesh and sex. This memorable, convincing and detailed part of the narrative, given the narrator's position, is thus highlighted as doubly fictional, an emphasis both autobiography and biography avoid. The novel veers between adopting autobiographical conventions and violating them; for example, the first-person narrator is sometimes clearly Daisy the autobiographer and yet also shifts to the third-person omniscience typical of the novel or biography. Yet despite this omniscience, which allows access to the inner thoughts of others (for example, the reader shares Daisy's father's thoughts as he dies), Daisy herself is oddly lacking in introspection and the third person narrator rarely recounts her thoughts. She apparently retains the reticence typical of the autobiographer about personal matters, voicing few negative opinions of family or friends and mentioning sex only briefly. Further, the novel is filled with passages that read like interviews conducted after her death with her friends and family.
The reader is challenged to discover a position Daisy could have taken to narrate such an account and ultimately it appears that the account is, in fact, a kind of fantasy she has during her long decline into death after a heart attack at 80: "she shuts her eyes … regarding something infinitely complex printed on the thin skin of her eyelids, a secret, a dream." Daisy has certainly had the time to fill in most of the "dark voids and unbridgable gaps" that are supposedly intrinsic to autobiography. In fact, she clearly has not produced an autobiography at all, but a fiction that mimics some of the conventions of autobiography and violates others. Daisy's stonemason father builds an intricately carved tower as a memorial to her mother; Daisy dreams a memorial for herself: "Stone is how she finally sees herself, her living cells replaced by the insentience of mineral deposition…. She lies, in her last dreams, flat on her back on a thick slab, as hugely imposing as the bishops and saints she'd seen years earlier in the great pink cathedral of Kirkwall….
Although The Stone Diaries does highlight the limitations of life writing—currently a fairly fashionable project—it far more interestingly problematizes the split between the central character's life and her narrative voice. Unlike Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, where Hagar's account of her life from the perspective of old age conveys the effect of complete authenticity, Daisy and her narrative voice seem to be jarringly disparate. The Daisy we read about appears far too unselfconscious, far too unanalytic, to produce the fascinating narrative that we are reading, even in the context of a kind of deathbed conversion from dullness to brilliance. Her son Warren's speculations on her life underscore the problem. Apropos of a university essay Daisy wrote in 1926 on the struggle for Italian independence he asks:
Where did it go, my mother's intellectual ease and energy?… When I think about my mother's essay on Camillo Cavour, I can't help feeling cheated, as if there's some wily subversion going on, a glittering joke locked in a box and buried underground. And then I think: if I feel cheated, how much more cheated she must feel. She must be in mourning for the squandering of herself. Something, someone, cut off her head, yanked out her tongue.
The narrative technique makes up, in a way, for the squandering of Daisy's intellectual, imaginative and spiritual self in middle-class domesticity; Daisy gets her intellectual ease back, but only as a glittering joke in the failing body of an old woman who has no real audience for her reclaimed life. The degree of her oppression is the difference between what her narrative proves she can think and what others saw of her. The reader, like her children, never sees anything but the domestic Daisy; only the reader hears the voice of the liberated Daisy. From a feminist perspective, Daisy's life can be figured as a triumph, but such a perspective cannot disguise its terrible limitations.
Nonetheless, feminism scarcely affected Daisy; what this text does is allow her to reveal the beauties and contributions of a life spent in nurturing men, children and plants. Domesticity is the heart of this novel; surprising a husband with a new recipe, counting pillow cases, producing a marvellous garden, these are the important feats, the memorable feats. Not to mention giving birth to the children and creating for them a peaceful home. Daisy's one venture into paid employment, the gardening column she writes for nine years, pales into insignificance by comparison. Domesticity is never rejected, but the text makes it clear what Daisy's generation missed. It is the next generation, exemplified by Daisy's elder daughter Alice, divorcée, mother of three, grandmother of three, failed novelist and noted Chekhov scholar, who will begin to overcome the patriarchal prohibition against women who combine a domestic life with an intellectual and spiritual one. Alice has been able to see her life as something "she's making … up as she goes along" rather than a fixed pattern laid out by convention, Good Housekeeping, McCall's and The Canadian Home Companion.