This novel is the story of Larry and his journey through two divorces, a girlfriend and falling again for one of his exes. All of which happens to an average person with average desires and an average passion, namely, designing mazes. The result for me was therefore average.
It’s also the first work by Carol Shields that I’ve read but I suppose this may not have been the best place to start. I’ve heard good things about her writing which is why my review is focusing on the writing aspect.
One prominent feature in this novel is the intensity of Shields’ descriptive prowess. Take the opening page, second paragraph where the reader has just been told that Larry grabbed the wrong jacket:
His hand was travelling straight into a silky void. His five fingers pushed down, looking for the balled-up Kleenex from his own familiar worn-out pocket, the nickels and dimes, the ticket receipts from all the movies he and Dorrie had been seeing lately. Also those hard little bits of lint, like meteor grit, that never seem to lose themselves once they’ve worked into the seems.
In one paragraph we learn what Larry is like and already draw some inferences about his relationship to Dorrie and how they spend their time. Shields accomplishes this feat beautifully throughout the novel and this alone made it worth reading. However, what was simultaneously irritating was this constant feat of description. The first chapter, a short one, is set to establish to the reader who Larry is and his current relationship, but the reader is swamped with detail about clothes, fabrics and the characters’ preferences and choices, resulting in an overkill effect, where, several pages later, we’re back to the jacket:
It comes to Larry what the noise is. It’s the lining of his jacket moving back and forth across his shoulders as he strolls along, also the lining material sliding up and down against his shirt-sleeves…
Now I understand that the scene was foregrounded with the jacket and returning several pages to this establishes to the reader the continuation of the scene, but is it really necessary to go into that much descriptive detail again (I’ve truncated the paragraph above)?
The novel tracks Larry’s life from 1977 to 1997, which, let’s face it, is not that great a time span for a contemporary novel. And while the story tackles two marriages, a (girl) friend and Larry’s infatuation with mazes, alongside several other characters, Shields’ at no point explores in-depth Larry’s inner psyche. The interactions between characters was much too real with lack of subtext or emotional insight, resulting in an overall superficial read. This was perhaps the greatest downfall of the novel considering there were ample opportunities and situations to delve deeper into the characters, or even into Larry alone.
The focus on descriptions and quick dialogue gave the novel a whirlwind effect where the pace was quick and the story development was at times amusing and at times blasé. The reader stays floating above the unfolding scenes and watches the characters interacting in the most common of situations, a slice-of-life effect if you will. This added to the effect that Larry was a puppet reacting to the events unfolding around him rather than his being an active participant to events revolving around him.
Although there are some wonderful descriptive passages and occasional eyebrow-raising observations, the emotional superficiality and overly realistic dialogue of the characters made it difficult to invest any sympathy towards these characters. If you’re looking for an easy contemporary read with strong descriptions then the book can offer this, but steer away if you wish to delve more deeply into character development.