The Stone Diaries is the story of the life of Daisy Goodwill Hoad Flett. The novel is divided into ten chapters, beginning with “Birth, 1905” and ending with “Death.” A fictional biography of a Canadian American woman, the novel spans her childhood, marriages, children, work, decline, and death.
Narrated by several different voices, but most often by Daisy herself, the novel weaves a complex pattern of stories that belie the chronological layout of the book. The description of Daisy’s own birth, for example, is told by Daisy in the first person. The narration begins in Tyndall, Manitoba, with Daisy’s mother, Mercy Stone Goodwill, making dinner on a hot summer day; one hour later, the mother has died giving birth. Interwoven into this chapter are the courtship stories of Mercy and Cuyler, freighted with emotions that could never have been described to the child by her father and revealing a first mystery: Mercy had not hidden her pregnancy from her husband but had simply been unaware of it herself.
Daisy is cared for by her parents’ neighbor, Clarentine Flett, who takes the infant child with her when she leaves her husband and goes to Winnipeg to live with her son, a college professor. The narrative in this chapter includes description of Cuyler’s building the stone tower on the grave of Mercy, and letters from Barker and Clarentine Flett advance the plot. Daisy’s character develops through her response to illness, a response that includes her discovery of an “absence inside herself,” a discovery that she lacked “the kernel of authenticity.”
Her marriage in 1927 leads to a defining moment for Daisy: her husband’s fall from a window while they are on their honeymoon in France, dramatically ending their unconsummated marriage and leaving Daisy to return to her life in Indiana, where she lives with her father and socializes with friends for the next nine years. The impetus to leave her uneventful widowed life is provided by her father’s passionate marriage with Maria, a lovingly demonstrative woman known to kiss the top of her husband’s head.
Daisy returns to Canada and marries Barker Flett, the man with whom she has been corresponding and to whom she has referred as “Uncle Barker” since her childhood. Her middle age is marked by the births of her three children, the death of her husband, and her taking over the writing of a newspaper column on gardening, a column that gives her an identity as “Mrs. Greenthumb.”
Perhaps the most intriguing chapter, “Work, 1955-1965,” is written entirely in letters. The letters suggest outlines of family conflict and most poignantly the passing of romance and love. The chapter opens with Barker’s will being filed and recounts a letter he had left for Daisy to open after his death, a letter confirming Barker’s place in the world of the novel: one who has missed opportunities, has gone on about the business of living without savoring passionate moments. His final correspondence with Daisy expresses regret for unshared passion. The remaining letters in the chapter are less poignant but nevertheless riveting. They sketch generosities of spirit in Daisy (taking in her pregnant niece Beverly; traveling unbidden to her daughter Alice, who was in the midst of depression on the anniversary of her father’s death), the outlines of her career as Mrs. Greenthumb (letters of appreciation from readers; allusions to an affair with her editor), and finally the end of her nine-year career as a columnist.
Daisy endures an intense depression after losing her column. Shields’s narrative method of various voices drives this section of the novel. Each of those closely connected to Daisy speculates on the cause of her depression, including the grandson of the Jewish salesman who witnessed her birth, Abram Skutari, as a voice explaining her depression as a result of her incurable...
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