Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557
Following the success of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Stone Diaries, Shields’s Larry’s Party uncovers the life of Larry Weller, an ordinary, slightly sensitive, topiary maze-builder. Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, Larry’s Party follows its protagonist through a series of jobs, relationships, and travels as he attempts to uncover his potential as he learns about himself.
Larry’s life is revealed through fifteen self-contained sketches detailing specific moments from or aspects of Larry’s life. In some cases, the event does not seem particularly remarkable. For example, in the introductory vignette, Larry walks down a Winnipeg street when he realizes that he has picked up the wrong coat at his neighborhood coffeehouse. Aptly titled “Fifteen Minutes in the Life of Larry Weller, 1977,” the sketch reveals that he works for a flower company, he lives at home, he is a bit indecisive, and he feels wrong wearing a jacket that does not reflect whom he thinks he is. He also realizes in a moment of clarity that he loves his girlfriend Dorrie as he walks to meet her.
These brief overviews of moments and their implications for the unveiling of a life and that life’s journey are a part of this novel’s charm. Shields has a unique strategy in Larry’s Party of plopping the reader down at seemingly random moments in that life, then letting the narrative thread of the moment reveal the months or years since the previous chapter. For example, the second section of the book, “Larry’s Love,” begins with his getting a haircut. Only later does the reader find out that the haircut presages Larry and Dorrie’s marriage. Even later, the reader learns that Dorrie is pregnant and their honeymoon is not as joyous as it first seems. Shields uses this leapfrog approach until the last section of the novel, which concludes with the party mentioned in the title.
Shields shows how the fragments and specific moments or single events are the things which, inevitably, destroy or uphold people. The simple events and small details of Larry’s life such as the simple description of his clothes in “Larry’s Threads” become the pieces of his life that give his character hope as he fumbles through two dissolved marriages, the deaths of his parents, a coma, and success in his maze-building career.
Larry’s success as a maze-builder mirrors his relative success at life. Larry’s life—his fickle movements and feeble misunderstandings but also his eventual self-discovery which allows him to move into satisfying work and, eventually, a satisfying relationship—disclose the misunderstandings, false starts, and difficulties of being a man in a world where the relationships between men and women take on a deepening complexity. Yet, like the maze-wanderer who is rewarded for his or her perseverance, Larry has his party at the end of the novel, a party which rewards him with continued hope in his resolve.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, July, 1997, p. 1777.
Canadian Forum. LXXVI, November, 1997, p. 38.
Entertainment Weekly. September 19, 1997, p. 78
Library Journal. CXXII, August, 1997, p. 135.
Maclean’s. CX, September 29, 1997, p. 82.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, September 7, 1997, p. 7.
Newsweek. CXXX, October 6, 1997, p. 76.
People Weekly. XLVIII, October 6, 1997, p. 43
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, August 11, 1997, p. 383.
Saturday Night. CXII, September, 1997, p. 13.
Time. CL, September 29, 1997, p. 92.
The Times Literary Supplement. August 22, 1997, p. 22.