1. Carol Shields spoke of becoming a writer because there
weren't enough books that examined women's friendships and women's
inner lives - or, as she put it, "the kind of book I wanted to read
but couldn't find." In what ways does Shields's fiction bring the
lives of women to the surface, or into our understanding? What
sorts of female experiences does she illuminate?
2. In her novels and stories, Shields often experiments with
using different voices. The Stone Diaries shifts
between first-, second-, and third-person narrative; one section of
Larry's Party is recorded almost entirely
in dialogue; Happenstance is a novel in
two parts, one narrated by the husband, one by the wife; the
stories in Various Miracles come from a wide
variety of narrative standpoints. Discuss point-of-view in
Shields's works, and the importance of telling one's own stories -
as characters or in real life. Also, what is the role of the writer
in telling other people's stories for them?
3. Though she's lauded as a writer who brought the lives of
ordinary people to the page and made them extraordinary, Carol
Shields took some exception to the idea in one interview: "I have
never known what 'ordinary' people means! I don't think I quite
believe in the concept…. There's no one who isn't complicated, who
doesn't have areas of cowardice or courage, who isn't incapable of
some things and capable of great acts. I think everyone has that
capability. Either we're all ordinary or else none of us is
ordinary." Discuss the role of ordinary life in Shields's fiction.
How do her above views come across in her writing? Is there a
respect for the everyday that you don't see in works by other
4. Shields once commented that she'd often set up the structure
of a novel, determining such elements as how many chapters there
would be, and how long they'd be, before she even set out to write.
"I need that kind of structure," she explained. "[S]ometimes I
change it. But mostly I don't.… I love structures, and I love
making new structures for novels." Discuss the overall structures
of different novels and how they relate to the content. For
example, does Larry Weller's love of garden mazes say anything
about the twenty years of his life covered by Larry's
Party? What meaning can be found in the one-word chapter
titles of Unless? How does Shields use, or even
undermine, the biography format in The Stone
5. "I''m concerned about the unknowability of other people,"
Shields once said. "That''s why I love biography and the idea of
the human life told or shown. Of course, this is why I love novels,
too. In novels, you get to hear how people are thinking. That's why
I read fiction." How does Shields expose and often celebrate the
inner lives of her characters? Can you find examples of characters
who aren't really known to those around them? How do their
relationships suffer, or thrive, or even just survive, in the face
of such distance?
6. How does what you know about Carol Shields as a person affect
your reading of her books? Are you able to separate the author from
her work? Do you feel the need to? What parallels can you draw
between her approach to life and those of her characters? For
instance, most of her main characters are women at mid-life, and
many of her characters are writers or work in other areas of book
publishing (translators, editors, etc.).
7. In interviews about Larry's Party,
Carol Shields commented more than once that men were "the ultimate
mystery" to her. Discuss the male characters in Shields's fiction -
both those in prominent roles, like Larry Weller in Larry's
Party or Tom Avery in The Republic of
Love, and the many husbands and lovers that seem
to populate the sidelines of other stories and novels. How
successfully does Shields portray the world of men in her work? Are
there common characteristics you can trace between books? Are some
of her male characters defined by the women they love? Or is it
more often the other way around?
8. Many of Carol Shields's works explore the ways individuals
interact with their communities. Some characters are defined by
their loneliness, while others struggle with their responsibilities
to the people around them, whether it's their family or a larger
group. Discuss the roles of family and community in Shields's
9. Carol Shields has always been well-known for her love of
language, and its slipperiness. In what ways does her writing call
attention to itself as writing? Are there particular stories or
novels that you find playful? Or linguistically complex?
10. Author and literary journalist James Atlas, who edited the
series for which Shields wrote her Austen biography, once said
about Carol Shields, "she is our Jane Austen." Compare
Shields's fiction to that of Austen - are there common themes or
techniques? What other major authors would you compare Shields to,
and why? Where does her work fit into our literary canon?