03. Larry’s Party, by Carol Shields

LarryWhere I read it: eating rhubarb crumble in the kitchen. Not the whole book (and not the whole crumble), but some of both.

This weekend I went to the inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival, which was fantastic. The first panel was on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which, as regular readers will know, is something I’m very interested by, and which I’ve been trying to read all the winners of. (Awkwardly constructed sentence, sorry, but can’t think of a way to fix it without splitting it into two sentences, which is boring. Onwards!) This book, Larry’s Party, won that prize in 1998. One of the things that interested me most about the panel at the festival was the series of statistics on women writers and their books. Amid the usual depressing factoids about number of women published vs. shortlisted for prizes, there was this: of those women who are on lists for prizes, the majority of them—I can’t remember the figure, infuriatingly, but it is well above half—have written their books about male protagonists.

Obviously, I thought of Larry’s Party, which I’ve just finished and has the distinction of being one of the few books I’ve ever read that goes really deeply into a man’s head. Larry does things, sure: he’s married twice, he starts out as a florist and becomes a designer of mazes and then a noted landscape designer, he has a son. But it’s what he thinks and feels that Carol Shields writes about, and in that assertion—that men, too, have lives full of emotion, that they suffer from uncertainty and doubt—there’s something that I find oddly comforting. I’ve grown up in an era both of widespread feminism and of reactionary masculinity. That it could be so different forty years ago (Larry is born in 1950; the book starts in 1977) is quietly mindblowing. Shields isn’t just writing about Larry, I don’t think, but about the whole Western world. From 1977 to 1997, a hell of a lot changed for white First World-ers: politics, technology, gender, the amount of distance permitted between private and public lives. You wouldn’t call Larry radical, exactly (his first wife, Dorrie, does all the laundry and the cooking, though his second wife, Beth, is a professor of gender studies.) But he is, quietly, unexpected. His father doesn’t have conversations with him, doesn’t really know what to do with him. He’s a “weedy adolescent” and a tall, not especially sporty man. His degree, from a local community college, is in flower arranging. He spends much of his life experiencing complex, deep, and tender feelings, which he is sadly aware that he doesn’t possess the vocabulary to express. He never becomes a hardened or a defensive man. That reactionary masculinity I talked about earlier, the sort of thing that underpins cultural phenomena from burger-eating contests to rape apologism: that is not present in Larry’s psyche. He is not violent or lecherous or cruel.

Another of the rather excellent things about Larry’s Party is that not much really happens in it. The party at the end is meant to sum up, if you will, everything that’s gone before: all of Larry’s adult life so far, from twenty-seven to forty-seven. The novel chronicles relationships above all: relationships with colleagues, with lovers, with a child, with work and the intellect, with the past. It’s a domestic novel about a man, and when you phrase it like that, this deceptively sedate-seeming book starts to look pretty damn brave.

(I’m not mad keen on the ending, though. Dorrie again? Really? It doesn’t seem in keeping with the realistic gaze of the rest of the book, at all. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Lucy Warkenten whom Larry needs to be with. Maybe Shields thought so too, and wanted us to know that things never do work out the way they ought to.)

Larry’s Party, Carol Shields (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997)

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8 thoughts on “03. Larry’s Party, by Carol Shields

  1. ian darling says:

    This does sound really interesting and a little bit disturbing in that a novel from 1998 suddenly seems from a more hopeful, pre-backlash (or at least pre vicious backlash time. I wonder how such a novel would be received now?

  2. You make this sound so good! I was avoiding this one mostly because it was about a man, and I prefer to read about women. But your insights have me thinking twice. A “domestic novel about a man” does sound brave, doesn’t it?
    Love the very last sentence (of your review).

  3. I love Carol Shields! I feel like she needs to be better known. I keep hoping a magazine will bite on the idea of an article reviving her reputation (she died in 2003), but no luck so far. (Granted, I’ve only tried one publication.) I’ve read four of her novels and her collected short stories, which I would highly recommend. I have two of her other novels on the shelf and am saving them as a treat.

    • I definitely have Unless and The Stone Diaries on my to-check-out list now. An article on her sounds great; we’re probably at the point after her death where her reputation will be sinking (apparently this happens to an author 10-20 years post-mortem…), but I’m pretty sure her star will rise again soon.

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