The Stone Diaries

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Shields’s novel begins in 1905 with the unexpected birth of Daisy Goodwill to mild-mannered Canadian quarrier Cuyler Goodwill and his simple, portly wife, Mercy, who dies immediately afterward. Daisy’s life is for the most part unremarkable. She is twice married and twice widowed, has three children, enjoys a brief career as a newspaper gardening columnist, and reaches a ripe old age before her death in the early 1990’s. Throughout, the author uses all manner of devices to fill out the account of Daisy’s life: not only straight narrative but also conversations; letters; newspaper clippings; quotes from members of the community, family, and friends; and changes in narrative voice from first person to third person. Yet, despite this thoroughness, the narrator admits that “the recounting of a life is a cheat, of course” and adds later, “Biography, even autobiography, is full of systemic error.”

The narrator bemoans the unavoidable waste of time in people’s lives: “How can so much time hold so little.” The very chapter setup underlines the idea that although one’s life may be marked by significant events, most of one’s time passes as so much water under the bridge. Each chapter centers on a single year amid an entire decade and on a significant event in Daisy’s life: chapter 1: Birth, 1905; chapter 2: Childhood, 1916; chapter 3: Marriage, 1927; and so on. The author’s very literary approach of picking and choosing significant...

(The entire section is 406 words.)