Carol Shields is one of those writers I keep coming back to when I’m in need of some flawlessly executed expansiveness. In her very good novel Unless and in her even better novel Swann, I fell immediately in love with not only the worlds she created but also with the seemingly effortless way she created them. Shields’s writing is as reliable as any in contemporary Canadian fiction.
So coming into Larry’s Party, her 1997 (and penultimate) novel, I had some pretty high expectations. Unfortunately, I felt that this book just didn’t quite live up to the standards I’ve become accustomed to with Shields’s work. Larry’s Party takes as its story 20 years in the life of one Larry Weller. Born in Winnipeg in 1950, by the time we first meet up with him in 1977, he’s just gotten married to his first wife, Dorrie, and is well established in his unconventional (for a man) career as a florist.
Each chapter details a new year in Larry’s life and takes us through the various milestones of the Baby Boomer generation: he and Dorrie have a son, Ryan (conceived out of wedlock, which for the mid 1970s was still a big deal); they get divorced after five years of marriage; Larry eventually moves to Chicago, taking on a new career as a designer of elaborate specialty mazes for the wealthy and marries his second wife, a Women’s Studies scholar named Beth; he then divorces her after she takes an academic job in England; he develops a relationship with a third woman, Charlotte; and through it all goes through the various foibles of growing old and the twists and turns of life in the second half of the 20th century.
There’s a lot to admire about this book, but also a lot that annoys. Chief among the problems I had with Larry’s Party is its structure: each chapter is written as a stand-alone piece, as if this were a collection of short stories and not a novel. Characters and their backgrounds are reintroduced in each chapter and each chapter has its own small arc. And yet this is not a short story collection, and it’s not even a collection of linked stories. If it were, Shields wouldn’t be so preoccupied with the linear track of Larry’s overall story and would have made the various ‘slippages’ necessary for a linked collection to work. This is a novel, and yet is inexplicably framed like a short story collection.
The other problem I had was the number of secondary stories that just did not go anywhere. Larry’s mother deals with a great deal of depression as a result of playing a role in the death of her own mother-in-law (it involves, implausibly, the consumption of a toxic bean) but this subplot is never explored in any depth. Larry’s sister, Midge, is also a fascinating character but the various pitfalls of her life are forever kept out of our reach, and not in a good way. Ryan, who gets heavily involved in sports as a teenager, becomes embroiled in a steroid scandal, but we learn almost nothing about it.
Finally, Larry’s Party’s overarching metaphor, that of the maze, is a bit overdone by the end of the book. We catch on too early to the importance of Larry’s career as a designer of mazes and yet it seems even this motif is dropped without explanation. The final chapter, where Larry hosts the titular dinner party where all three of the women in his life show up, is dull, dumb and implausible. Larry is, it seems, left agog at the very existence of these women who have gone to become such successes without him. He is agog, it seems, at the very notion of a successful, independent woman.
While it’s true that Larry’s Party is rich in Shields’s trademark prose, it’s also true that it’s far inferior to her other work. I admit my expectations were very high, but I definitely wanted to see something better from this author.