By Carol Shields
339 pp., $23.95
Among her many talents, the Canadian writer Carol Shields has a gift for portraying, not just the ordinary, but the downright mundane. In novels like her recent "The Stone Diaries" and her latest, "Larry's Party," Shields deftly treads a fine line between satirizing and celebrating the unexceptional lives of deeply average characters.
Employing a variety of ingenious literary techniques and devices, Shields presents her characters in a distinctly ironic, gently mocking light. Yet it is clear that her - and our - sympathies are meant to be with them as they make their way through the familiar but seldom smooth terrain of ordinary life.
The eponymous Larry is an excellent case in point. Born in 1950, he is an average student, who, without much thinking about it, takes up the vocational study of floral design. Despite parental anxieties as to his sexual orientation (what sort of man wants to spend all day working with flowers? they wonder), Larry has no discernible homosexual inclinations. As the novel begins, he is just about to do the right thing by his pregnant girlfriend, Dorrie.
We learn about Larry's job as a florist, his wedding to Dorrie, and their honeymoon in England, where Larry happens upon something that will change the course of his life: the maze at Hampton Court in Surrey. Larry cannot explain why he is fascinated by these intricately designed, leafy labyrinths in which it is possible to lose and find oneself but his interest in mazes eventually enables him to embark on a successful career designing them for mildly eccentric rich people in the United States and Canada.
Like many other couples of their generation, Larry and Dorrie are divorced before very long: she retains custody of their son; he gets to see the boy on weekends and holidays. In the 20-year period the novel chronicles, the usual kinds of changes occur. At the same time, Shields examines Larry from the perspective of topics such as "Larry's Work," "Larry's Friends," "Larry's Threads," and even at a party.
Her fascination with these semisociological details helps make them interesting to the reader as well. But if she succeeds in rescuing these quotidian artifacts from triviality, she does not quite manage to invest them with compelling significance. What is perhaps significant about Larry as a character is Shields's portrayal of him as simultaneously ordinary and unique. Shields views her characters as if from above: with a wry, yet ultimately kindly detachment. If she is amused by Larry's middle-class, middle-brow tastes and values, she is equally amused by the feminist intellectual pretensions of his second wife, Beth, an academician who takes herself and her ideas a little too seriously.
If there is a flaw besetting this artfully composed portrait of an ordinary man, it lies in a certain aura of complacency. The problem is not that Shields has chosen to write about people of modest aspirations, but rather, that she too often settles for the easiest, least probing, least exacting approach to presenting them. But within its limitations, this is an engaging work of fiction: funny, tender, poignant, and gracefully written.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.