Friday, January 14, 2011

The Beauty in the Ordinary

When I choose which book I'm going to read next, it usually takes me a little while.  I hover around the bookshelves deliberating in a way that only further reinforces my indecisive nature.  In an effort to ensure that I would not be disappointed in my choice, I picked out a book which I thought was absolutely foolproof, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.  

Years ago, I was first introduced to Shields when I read Unless, a book that is in the mix amongst the best Canadian books of the past decade.  From my experience with Unless, I knew that I was in good hands with Carol Shields, and that I only needed to strap myself in and enjoy the ride.  The plot in an of itself is not the most stimulating, and is more than a little reminiscent of The Stone Angel by Margaret Lawrence, but I was still riveted for the most part. The Stone Diaries, like The Stone Angel follows the life of one woman, Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her dramatic birth, until her slow convalescence and eventual death. Aside from her unique childhood and short first marriage, Daisy doesn't really present herself as a dynamic personality.  Rather, she is surrounded by interesting people and through her eyes we glimpse their quirks and adventures.  

Books, for the most part, are driven by one or more of three factors: plot, characters, or language.  This book is primarily carried by the language Shields uses and the secondary characters.  Shields had a gift for describing everyday situations in a refreshing way, which is a quality that distinguishes good writing from great writing. Aside from her birth and childhood, there is nothing particularly engaging about Daisy's story, but the language Shields employs and the lives of other characters held my attention.  Daisy's father, Cuyler, is definitely one of the most distinctive characters I have run across in a long time.  From his beginnings as a humble stonecutter in Tyndall, Manitoba, he becomes a magnate and marathon orator.  His evolution as a character and his pursuits are fascinating and chalk full of symbolism.  The contrast between Cuyler and his daughter is quite dramatic, with him living life on a grander scale than his daughter. He lives his life and takes on projects without any thought to public perception.  Though Daisy is not a slave to the opinions of others, she lives within the confines of the female gender role of her time.  

This is pointed out to the reader by her son, Warren, who views her life as a waste of her intellectual potential.  I think that it is easy to criticize from the perspective of another generation, and it is difficult to judge her choices from a modern point of view.  Shields' gift for narrative is her ability to elevate the lives of the average, normal protagonists, so that they are appreciated in an of themselves.  It is far easier to tell the story of an adventurer or a rags-to-riches success, but Shields' talent lies in showing the reader the beauty of the everyday.  There are many novels featuring the lives of fascinating people and they provide great escapes, however sometimes it's nice to take a peak into the life of an ordinary woman like Daisy.        

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