(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Larry’s Party, Carol Shields’s first novel since winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries (1994), combines the fragmented, piecemeal style of that novel with thematic strategies used in The Republic of Love(1992). Shields seems intent on keeping Larry’s Party lighter than The Stone Diaries; consequently, it lacks some of the dark, dramatic intensity of that novel. Larry’s Party nevertheless marks a clever return to the wit and humor found in Shields’s earlier works, particularly in how Shields creates the average but quirky character of Larry Weller. As the female Shields attempts to explore and relay what it feels like to be a man at the end of the twentieth century, she interrogates one man’s life choices as well as the peculiarities of the times when he lives. Although the reader remains somewhat conscious of her gender trickery, Larry’s Party does do justice to the peculiar absurdities and pleasures of living in a world where gender codes and expectations change rapidly and without warning.

Stylistically, Larry’s Party effects a partial return to Shields’s use of the diary form found in The Stone Diaries. Told as a series of fifteen vignettes, each from a specific time in Larry Weller’s life, the novel chronicles twenty years in less than 350 pages. Although not in diary form per se, the self-contained scenes create the same type of disjointed narrative feel as a diary, a sense of dropping in on Larry at random moments. Although they are related in chronological order, the scenes leave large gaps in time and plot development between them. As a result of these breaks in continuity, the reader must piece together the left-out parts of the plot where one might normally find exposition, explanation, and further character development. Occasionally, the limited omniscient narrator repeats background information as if he or she has no knowledge of the other scenes included in the book. For example, the narrator introduces the reader to Larry’s parents several times, as if the reader did not already know these characters from previous explanation. This type of expositional overlap suggests that the chapters could be individual short stories and underscores the rather random nature of the scenes—even the narrator/recorder does not know what has been said elsewhere.

The overall effect of creating a novel of scenes is twofold. First, Shields is able to cover a long period of time in fifteen short moments chronicled with precise detail, particularly in Larry Weller’s characterization. Second, the sometimes random selection of scenes can convey the quick, often intuitive decisions that this man makes. For example, in the first scene of the novel, Larry discovers he has mistakenly taken the coat of another patron of the coffee shop he frequents. As he notices the coat’s superior texture and style, he begins to feel more expansive and more like the man whom he imagines really owns this coat. As a consequence of this reverie, Larry suddenly realizes he wants to be more like that man. He decides to move out on his own and be with the woman he suddenly decides he truly loves—his current girlfriend, Dorrie. The scene is important because Shields is able to establish Larry’s thought processes with one brief moment of action and contemplation, at the same time establishing the quirkiness of the scene selections that will follow. In this, Shields confirms her narrative method as she validates the importance of seemingly random and intuitive acts.

This aspect of the novel, however, is complicated because most of the other characters seem sacrificed for the creation of Larry Weller, the only well-rounded character in the novel. Shields must foreground Larry, however, because the novel’s movement relies on the reader’s ability to empathize and identify with him and his plight. Because she must devote so much time and care to creating Larry, Shields relies on the Dickensian method of detail by association to keep other characters individualized. For example, the reader learns in the third scene/chapter that Larry’s mother was once accused by her father-in-law of murdering her mother-in-law by serving her poorly home-canned green beans. By the midpoint of the novel, all other aspects of Dorothy Weller fade to this one fact about her.

Shields also uses name association to help the reader identify characters. Larry’s second wife, who studies the lives of female saints, is named Beth Prior to remind the reader of her affiliation with the church. Charlotte Angus, as her bovine name suggests, is plodding, methodical, and cowlike in her devotion to Larry.

This lack of minor character development would create more problems ifLarry’s Party were a more conventionally plotted novel. The novel concerns only episodes...

(The entire section is 1981 words.)