Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355
Tom Avery and Fay McLeod are not stock romance characters; they are a bit too ordinary and self-aware for that. Nor are they strikingly handsome, although not unattractive; they are middle-aged and have achieved a degree of independence. Most notably, they both have a history of failed relationships which takes the story out of the realm of fantasy and into the contemporary world. Both are cognizant that they are actively seeking romance, someone to love, but they're on the outside looking in. As Fay notices, "The lives of others baffle her, especially the lives of couples, the chancy elusive cement of their private moments. What exactly do Iris and Mac Jaffe think when they lie down together at night in their glittering midnight-blue bedroom?" She wonders the same about her parents, married for forty years, and her godmother, Onion, who marries her longtime lover, Strom, only after he has had a stroke. Certainly, Shields does not allow her lovers to find happiness too easily, though. Fay even calls off their wedding after her parents' marriage fails, causing her to doubt the strength of any such commitments:
Every thing she pronounces or thinks seems to come winking off a set of diluted song lyrics . . . . A numbing self-consciousness has made her doubt every word that leaps off her tongue. Not to mention every word that enters her ear. Love, love, how can we possibly speak of love in the last decade of the twentieth century. . . ? There are the usual stops and starts, and plenty of other couples in various stages, some waxing relationships, some waning, and they combine and recombine in ever-changing configurations. Most people's lives don't wrap up nearly as neatly as they'd like to think. Fay's sure of that. Most people's lives are a mess.
Shields emphasizes the interconnectedness of people's lives. Tom and Fay know some of the same people long before knowing each other. The numerous peripheral couples' overlapping stories enrich the main one, lending it resonance. Winnipeg seems to be a place where everyone knows everyone else's story, good or bad, and whether one likes it or not, one is on display.