Stone Diaries (Shields)

The Stone Diaries
Carol Shields, 1994
Penguin Group USA
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143105503

Canada Governor General's Award (1994)
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1995)

The Stone Diaries is the story of one woman's life; a truly sensuous novel that reflects and illuminates the unsettled decades of our century.

Born in 1905, Daisy Goodwill drifts through the chapters of childhood, marriage, widowhood, remarriage, motherhood and old age. Bewildered by her inability to understand her own role, Daisy attempts to find a way to tell her own story within a novel that is itself about the limitations of autobiography. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 2, 1935
Where—Oak Park, Illinois, USA
Death—July 16, 2003
Where—Toronto, Canada
Education—B.A., Hanover College; M.A., Ottawa University
Awards—Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction for Larry’s Party,
   1998; Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries, 1995; National
   Book Critics Circle Award for The Stone Diaries, 1994

Carol Shields's characters are often on the road less traveled, and the trip is never boring. She has written about a folklorist, a poet, a maze designer, a translator, even other writers—appropriate professions in novels in which characters struggle to find their own paths in life.

Shields often focused on female characters, most notably in The Stone Diaries, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel documenting the birth, death, and everything in between of Daisy Goodwill. Goodwill's story is told over a century, in various voices, featuring Shields's wry humor and her ability to convey what she has called "the arc of human life."

But don't pigeonhole Shields as a "women's writer." "I have directed a fair amount of energy and rather a lot of rage into that particular corner [of the] problem of men and women, particularly men and women who write and how women's novels are perceived differently from men's," Shields said in a 2001 interview. In 1997's Larry's Party, she swapped genders, writing from the perspective of a male floral designer who discovers a passion for mazes.

Unafraid to experiment with genres, Shields wrote an epistolary novel (A Celibate Season, coauthored with Blanche Howard), a sort of "literary mystery" about the posthumous discovery of a murdered poet's genius (Swann), and short stories (collected in Dressing for the Carnival and other titles). Though she often covered serious topics, she rarely did so without humor. Her novel of mid-life romance, Republic of Love, was called by the New York Times a "touching, elegantly funny, luscious work of fiction," an assessment that could be applied to the bulk of her work.

Shields changed her viewpoint yet again for Unless, but the circumstance was a tragic one. The book, which resurrects the main character from Dressing Up for the Carnival's "A Scarf," was written during the author's battle with breast cancer. "I never want to sound at all mystical about writing,'' she said in a 2002 interview, ''but this book—it just came out." Though not touching on her own illness, Shields did what she had always done—took her own questions and lessons, then used them to produce a story that speaks its own truth.

Shields passed away on July 16, 2003; she was 68.

From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is how she responded:

• When I was home sick as a child I used to take several volumes of the Encyclopedia to bed with me. We had a World Book Encyclopedia, which had quite a few pictures in color. I read the volumes randomly, browsing my way through them. I loved the hugeness of the world they confirmed for me, and the notion that that vastness could be organized and identified. You might think I would be humbled by the fact that people—individual intelligences—could become familiar with arcane material, but, in fact, I was deeply encouraged.

Here is Shields on were her favorite books (a fascinating list):

Emma by Jane Austen. This book was written at the height of Austen's powers, when she felt secure in her footing.

The Enigma of Arrival by V. S. Naipaul. The subject is so complex and the approach so original, that I didn't think he'd make it to the end, but he did.

• The Rabbit novels by John Updike. You might think of this as the four books it is, or you might see it as one long novel of the life of an American male in the middle of the 20th century. It is a great accomplishment, this emotional documentation of a human life and the other lives that accompany him.

Independent People by Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Prize winner. This novel has an epic range, looking at the world sometimes through a giant telescope, then concentrating with a magnifying lens on the rambling thoughts of one particular child.

• I love all the books by Alice Munro, who has given the world new ways of looking at the lives of women. She has, in fact, reinvented the shape of the short story.

Possession by A. S. Byatt captures what many novels leave out: the life of the mind and the excitement of intellectual reflection.

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. This book, published in the last year, is about family, about the delicacy and strength that weaves the family into a web.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond made me believe (for about ten minutes) that I understood how the world was made. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Shields's novelistic signature is her sympathetic insight into ''the rather lumpy psychic matter of perplexity'' felt by her characters. Delving into the lives of obscure people like Daisy Flett, she captures their dazed awareness that they are mysteries to themselves—yet she also grants them "the cool and curious power of occasionally being able to see the world vividly."
Ann Hulbert - New York Times Book Review

The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.
New York Times

Bittersweet, beautifully written...deliciously unclassifiable, blatantly intelligent and subtly subversive.... The Stone Diaries chips away at our most cherished, comforting beliefs about the immutability of facts and fate.
San Francisco Chronicle

Shields follows her heroine, Daisy Goodwill Hoad Flett, from her birth—and her mother's death—on the kitchen floor of a stonemason's cottage in a small quarry town in Manitoba through childhood in Winnipeg, adolescence and young womanhood in Bloomington, Ind. (another quarry town), two marriages, motherhood, widowhood, a brief, exhilarating career in Ottawa—and eventually to old age and death in Florida. Stone is the unifying image here: it affects the geography of Daisy's life, and ultimately her vision of herself. Wittily, ironically, touchingly, Shields gives us Daisy's version of her life and contrasting interpretations of events from her friends, children and extended family. (She even provides ostensible photographs of Daisy's family and friends.) Shields's prose is succint, clear and graceful, and she is wizardly with description, summarizing appearance, disposition and inner lives with elegant imagery. Secondary characters are equally compelling, especially Daisy's obese, phlegmatic mother; her meek, obsessive father, who transforms himself into an overbearing executive; her adoptive mother, her stubborn father-in-law. Readers who discover Shields with this book can also pick up a simultaneously published paperback version of an early first novel, Happenstance.
Publishers Weekly

Shields (The Republic of Love, The Orange Fish, Swan) offers epic material in this century-long story of a woman's life told from many points of view. Short-listed for the Booker Prize, the novel dazzles with its deft touch and ironic wisdom. Daisy Goodwill is born in 1905 in Manitoba and dies early in the 1990's in a Florida nursing home. Chapter headings are archetypal: "Birth, 1905," "Childhood, 1916," "Marriage, 1927," "Love, 1936," "Motherhood, 1947," until, finally, "Illness and Decline, 1985" and "Death." In fact, the novel even includes 16 pages of photos to mimic the usual pattern of a biography. In this case, however, the point of view switches frequently: "Life is an endless recruiting of witnesses," Daisy says in "Birth," and the narrative structure bears out this theme. Daisy's mother dies in childbirth, and her father, a stonecutter, forgets for days at a time "that he is the father of a child...."' Her father moves to Indiana, where she marries a man who quickly commits suicide and then, in 1936, she marries Barker Flett, a professor whose mother had brought her up. Her life plays itself out. Shields's quiet touch, gossipy and affectionate, re-creates Daisy's poignant decline and death with dollops of humorous distance, including obituaries, recipes, and overheard snippets of conversation. Shields, who began as a miniaturist, has come full bloom with this latest exploration of domestic plenitude and paucity; she's entered a mature, luminous period, devising a style that develops an earlier whimsical fabulism into a hard-edged lyricism perfect for the ambitious bicultural exploration she undertakes here.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The first chapter of this novel is the only one that is narrated entirely in the first person. Why might the author have chosen to shift narrative voices? At what points in the book does the narrative "I" return? Who do you think is telling Daisy's story?

2. What irony is implicit in the fact that Mercy Goodwill is unaware of her own pregnancy? Compare this near-virgin birth to Daisy's own catastrophically chaste honeymoon. How do this novel's female characters experience sex, pregnancy and childbirth?

3. Although Daisy describes her mother as "extraordinarily obese" and taller than her husband, a photo reveals that Mercy Goodwill is actually shorter than Cuyler and no more than ordinarily husky. Is Daisy lying? Or does she merely have "a little trouble with getting things straight?" Where else are there discrepancies between Daisy's version of her life and the book's "documentation?"

4. From the passionate Cuyler Goodwill to Barker Flett, who is smitten with Daisy while she is still a child, the men in this novel are both erotically enthralled by women and fulfilled by their relationships with them. In contrast, their wives seem bewildered by, indifferent to, or at best serenely tolerant of their husbands' ardor. Does The Stone Diaries subvert traditional sex roles? Where do Daisy and the novel's other female characters derive their greatest pleasure and fulfillment? How badly do Shields's women need men?

5. When Cuyler Goodwill loses his wife he builds her a tower. When his daughter loses her first husband, she never tells the story to another soul. What might account for her reticence? How deeply does Daisy seem to love either of her husbands? On the other hand, how trustworthy are these characters' public displays of emotion?

6. "Life is an endless recruiting of witnesses." This observation in the first chapter seems borne out by the constant stream of secondary characters who intrude into Daisy's life story and at times commandeer it. What role does Daisy—or Carol Shields—assign "witnesses" like the Jewish peddler Abram Gozhdë Skutari, the bicyclist who kills Clarentine Flett, or Cuyler Goodwill's housekeeper? Why might these characters reappear in the narrative years after their initial entrances? How trustworthy are their interpretations of Daisy's life and character?

7. Although Cuyler Goodwill builds a tower in his wife's memory, he is unable to remember her name at the time of his own death. Magnus Flett is able to recite much of Jane Eyre from memory well into his hundreds. And, even as small children, Alice, Warren and Joan Flett "take turns comparing and repeating their separate and shared memories and shivering with pleasure every time a fresh fragment from the past is unearthed." What role does memory play in The Stone Diaries? How much of Daisy's diary is remembered, and how much imagined?

8. In the chapter entitled "Sorrow," a number of characters offer explanations for Daisy's depression. How accurate are any of these? Are we given any reason to trust one interpretation over others? How well do any of Daisy's intimates really know her? How well does the reader know her by the book's close?

9. How does Daisy influence her children or determine the choices they make in their own lives? Does she seem to do so at all? What kinds of lessons does she impart to them? Is Daisy Flett a "good" mother, a "good" wife or daughter? Does The Stone Diaries allow us to make such easy judgments about its protagonist?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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