An Extraordinary Tale Of an Ordinary Life

BESTSELLER lists these days are flush with stories involving characters of monolithic courage or titanic ambition caught up in strange adventure or romantic exploit.

For those of us fatigued by all this fictional heroism, author Carol Shields has torpedoed the notion that only nervous excitement and derring-do can generate a gripping story. Instead, she meticulously depicts the life of a lone woman, Daisy Goodwill Flett, a character so remarkably ordinary she could be anyone's mother or grandmother.

Despite all this ordinariness, a quality both chilling and fascinating emerges from ``The Stone Diaries,'' a novel in which every day of this woman's life is a self-enclosed drama of its own, but performed before no appreciative audience.

From her birth in 1905 in rural Manitoba to her widowhood and death 85 years later, Daisy (named for the most common of flowers) moves across the flickering backdrop of the 20th century, a woman resigned to her ``sphere'' of domestic toil, wifely duty, and civic responsibility.

As the years roll by, Daisy's outward life appears to be increasingly at odds with an inner life of secrets and hidden yearnings. Like the flower garden and house plants she expertly nurtures, Daisy has fundamental needs, but sadly, they go unnoticed by those around her (and even by herself at times).

``The Stone Diaries,'' nominated for Britain's Booker Prize, unfolds exquisitely through a mixture of first and third person narratives, letters, newspaper clippings - even recipes and short poems. A family tree and several pages of reproduced family photos lend an amusing air of authenticity.

Flashbacks, intentional digressions, and gaps in the plot never confuse the reader, but intensify the novel's central theme: What is the story of a life and who is qualified to tell it? Even Daisy herself admits to the reader that she is unreliable with details and subject to exaggeration.

At one point, after Daisy's husband dies, she becomes a successful gardening columnist for the city paper. Household chores become less important, and one senses she is at last beginning to live for herself, to write her own story. Touching letters from her faithful readers show she's making real and authentic connections to others.

When the editor abruptly hands over the column to a male employee of senior status (but vastly inferior talent), Daisy enters a period of depression and physical decline. No one is able to help her. Or, perhaps, she isn't allowing anyone to help. The last thing she wants to hear is ``everything's going to be OK.'' She wants to write her own story.

One is never sure, however, whether Daisy truly has the courage to live for herself.

We follow her past this crisis and into her retirement days in Sarasota, Fla., where she plays out ``the story'' of widowhood as the world tells it - ease, bridge games, shuffleboard, and health problems.

The lush gardens and botanical richness that decorated and sustained Daisy's life metaphorically give way in her last moments as she imagines herself turning inch by inch into cold stone. Not even Christian beliefs of salvation hold any solace. Her death is as haunting as her birth, which was similarly tragic and physically agonizing.

Shields smoothly weaves into the story interesting snippets of the advancing century - world wars, the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the publication of Betty Friedan's ``The Feminine Mystique.''

Daisy one time stops in Callander, Ontario, to gawk with other tourists at the Dionne quintuplets at play in their yard. In a telling moment, she becomes filled with indignation at the absurdity of the scene and how society so quickly glances at a person's life and sums it all up.

Shields, an American, has spent most of her life in Canada and invests this tale with an appreciation of its people and history.

Having raised five children before becoming a professional writer, she is penetrating in her gaze when it comes to traditional ``women's work'' - cooking, cleaning, child rearing - never belittling, but always searching for the woman behind it.

Still, ``The Stone Diaries'' is more than a woman's tale. Though there are moments of happiness and humor along the way, it is ultimately a story of lost opportunities and loneliness.

It looks beyond the accumulation of events, dates, and sterile facts a diary so faithfully records, to the universal problem of how ordinary men and women connect with one another and whether they are living authentic lives in an age of frightening change and equally frightening superficiality.

The author's outlook may be less than comforting, but it forces to the surface emotions that stir and rarefy, rather than merely titillate.

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