In celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of its original publication, Carol Shields's Pulitzer Prizewinning novel is now available in a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition One of the most successful and acclaimed novels of our time, this fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett is a subtle but affecting portrait of an everywoman reflecting on an unconventional life. What transforms this seemingly ordinary tale is the richness of Daisy's vividly described inner life -- from her earliest memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death.
Seeing as Daisy is born in 1905, and the book follows her life into her 80s, we are really getting a social history of the 20th century. A social history of a normal (whatever that is) womans life. She is a child, a student, a debutant and young bride, then an older mother (for the times), a professional, a traveller, an advice giver, home maker, caregiver, grandmother, bridge player and gardener. She has her existential worries like a lot of us do, and describes her way to old age in a distinctive way.
It was a pleasure reading this book. Revelations are announced in a calm and almost flippant way, with a "such is life" attitude. We are left to make our own conclusions about what may or may not have happened, until a few pages later when "it" is confirmed by someone elses observations. I liked this. I also liked that Daisy was human and had her human behaviour on display here. A wonderful journey
I found the writing in the beginning and near the end of this book particularly beautiful, especially in Chapter 1, of the love of the shy young man for his chosen wife. After I'd closed the book and began to think back on the story, the “Old Jew”, revealed in spurts throughout the book, turned out to be a most interesting character to my mind, from his participation at the birth, to his diagnosis of her “sorrow”.
But the main character is Loneliness. The loneliness, so palpably wafting from these pages, expressed (or sometimes not specifically remarked upon) by Daisy, and felt, before her time, by her own mother and the neighbor lady, even her own jolly childhood friends with their life experiences. In one of her interviews, Ms. Shields mentioned “women who are erased from their lives”. That phrase succinctly captures this story. One woman's life, of her longings, suppressed or sought after, of trying to make a life working around disappointments - the author's skill at showing that life had me engrossed in this book from the moment I opened it.
Moving right along, and along, and along. The way she's done all her life. Numbly. Without thinking. And. That life “thus far” has meant accepting the doses of disabling information that have come her way, every drop, and stirring them with the spoon of her longing – she's done this for so many years it's become second nature.
This book really resonated with me. Although I found some parts uncomfortable, the writing and the story drew me in. It is a very worthwhile book.
The fictional Daisy was just four years older than one of my grandmothers so I mentally classified her that way. Just when I felt like I was listening to family stories of long ago days when people were different, I came to this passage:
When we think of the past we tend to assume that people were simpler in their functions, and shaped by forces that were primary and irreducible. We take for granted that our forebears were imbued with a deeper purity of purpose than we possess nowadays, and a more singular set of mind, believing, for example, that early scientists pursued their ends with unbroken “dedication” and that artists worked in the flame of some perpetual “inspiration.” But none of this is true. Those who went before us were every bit as wayward and unaccountable and unsteady in their longings as people are today.
The Stone Diaries made me think about the way each person's life is shaped by the family and friends who surround them, by those who have lived and died before, and who in turn shape the lives of those who come after. While it's women's fiction, it's definitely not “chick lit.” It's a great reading choice for Women's History Month.
There were many, many beautiful passages in this book. I'll leave you with one as an example of the excellence of Shields' writing:
"Something has occurred to her--something transparently simple, something she's always known, it seems, but never articulated. Which is that the moment of death occurs while we're still alive. Life marches right up to the wall of that final darkness, one extreme state of being butting against the other. Not even a breath separates them. Not even a blink of the eye. A person can go on and on tuned in to the daily music of food and work and weather and speech right up to the last minute, so that not a single thing gets lost."
Carol Shields died of cancer in 2003. She was a gifted writer, and I definitely plan on reading more of her works.
Daisy is an ordinary woman whose life story is told through a third person narration, occasionally alternating with Daisy’s own perspective and that of family and friends, as well as through letters written to her. Throughout the book, we see her life through others’ eyes and as it went on, I began to see this as the central theme of the book – how a woman’s life is framed by others’ perceptions and experiences of her and how she can maintain her own identity in those circumstances. Loneliness and numbness and the transience of existence are explored, not only through Daisy’s story but through those of some of the secondary characters.
The novel is broken up into several sections; interestingly, the section on “Motherhood” is broken up into several sub-parts, which brought to mind the fragmentation of a woman’s life – wife, mother, friend, etc., and the subsuming of the whole person to these various roles. And in the last section, “Death”, Daisy’s life is reduced to a recitation of lists, a few recipes, and scraps of conversation among her family who never seem to truly have known who she was.
A few favorite passages:
“Is this what love is, he wonders, this substance that lies so pressingly between them, so neutral in color yet so palpable it need never be mentioned? Or is love something less, something slippery and odorless, a transparent gas riding through the world on the back of a breeze, or else – and this is what he more and more believes – just a word trying to remember another word.”
“In turn it perceives nothing of her, not her history, her name, her longings, nothing – which is why she is able to love it as purely as she does, why she has opened her arms to it, taking it as it comes…”
“So much had happened, so many spoken words and collapsed hours, the rooms of his life filling and emptying and never guessing at the shape of their outer walls, their supporting beams and rough textured siding….. There are chambers, he knows, in the most ordinary lives that are never entered, let alone advertised, and yet they lie pressed against the consciousness like leaf specimens in an old book.”
“… hurling herself at the emptiness she was handed at birth. In the void she finds connection, and in the connection another void – a pattern of infinite regress which is heartbreaking to think of – and yet it pushes her forward, it keeps her alive.”
Shields writes with grace and a subtle depth of feeling that grows as the story advances. There is a lot to reflect on in this novel, and I have only touched on a bit of it. I have not done justice to a beautiful book that pulled me in from the beginning.
Read by Sara Botsford
First, Sara Botsford is a stunning reader! Her accents are so spot-on, so authentic, that it’s hard to believe one person narrates the entire audiobook. My favourite was her perfect southern drawl – delightful!
I had high expectations going into The Stone Diaries, and Carol Shields did not disappoint; neither did Daisy Goodwill. I think the most remarkable thing about Daisy is that she is entirely unremarkable, and I don’t mean that at all offensively – quite the opposite. She is, if you will, “remarkably unremarkable” – “extraordinarily ordinary.” It strikes me that such a story would be difficult to write – an impressive accomplishment for Shields.
My absolute favourite part of The Stone Diaries is when Daisy’s mother-in-law-to-be, Mrs. Arthur Hoad, thinks to educate Daisy before her upcoming wedding and European honeymoon. This ensues in a hysterical discussion about European customs and manners, particularly regarding hygiene and sex. Daisy’s bridesmaids, Elfreda Hoyt (Fradie) and Labina Anthony (Beans), are also present to help out:
“She means a bidet … a bottom washer. You fill it up with water and sort of squat over it and scrub your Aunt Nelly clean.” (2.1)
“The thing you have to remember about the French, is that they are absolutely filthy about certain matters and religiously proper about others. For them a bidet is a necessity, for before and after … They have intercourse much, much more often than American women to, or English women for that matter. They’re much more highly sexed. They’re very keen on it, very creative; they do it other ways.” (2.1)
Highly recommended. This BTC audiobook will not disappoint.
Shields was evidently a great writer, but I feel like this book - in trying so hard to break down literary boundaries - just lacked something. Whilst the faux biography style was interesting, despite reading about Daisy Goodwill's life from birth to death I felt like I never really got to know her character very well.
The style of dipping between first and third person was hailed a literary marvel, yet to me it felt like lazy writing - a convenient way for the author to get herself out of tight spots when the story couldn't easily be told in the first person.
Photos were included in the book - again an attempt to push those literary boundaries and make it feel more like a real biography, but the first photo was so flawed I didn't even bother looking at the rest of them. The first chapter talks at length about how hugely fat Mercy was, and how she was taller than her husband, yet the photo that is supposed to portray them shows a woman who is clearly not hugely obese, and whose husband is taller than her. I read a transcript from a Carol Shields interview in which she was asked about this, and the answer was fairly grey. So again, to me this just felt like author laziness - a new idea about adding photos to fiction, but then just throwing anything in when it came down to it.
Daisy's story itself I found to be quite depressing. I actually don't mind a sad tale in a book, but rather than evoking an emotional response to the characters, this book just left me feeling faintly depressed. The overall message I took away was 'life is sometimes just so disappointing'.
An example of the cliche: the book opens with the birth of the main protagonist, Daisy Goodwill. Her mother never knew she was pregnant and dies after the labour. Gosh, haven't read that kind of thing before.
And so, somewhat clumsily, we have our isolated subject whom we are to follow for the best part of the twentieth century. And here Shields is very close to Robinson's novel. For reading on, it gradually dawns that Daisy, despite featuring in every part of the novel is, like the female protagonist in 'Home', notable largely by what she doesn't do, by her lack of character: a woman without a mother, whose first marriage is not consummated, who remarries an older man who fell in love with her when she was eleven and, so, keeps her is a state of perpetual girlhood. It goes on. Interesting stuff, particularly given the experimental form of the narrative as it shifts in voice as it moves from decade to decade.
Best parts are the most playful, the chapter made up of letters (though none from Daisy herself, another absence) and the closing chapters where others comment on her late years.
Well worth a read, but most illuminating in showing exactly how good Robinson is.
The novel is divided into ten chapters beginning with "Birth, 1905" and ending with "Death, 199-." The beginning, chronicling Daisy's conception and birth, is actually quite intriguing. Daisy's parents, Mercy Stone and Cuyler Goodwill, are elemental, almost Laurentian characters, who seemed to have saved each other from stunted existences. Cuyler is besotted with Mercy: "He knows that without the comfort of Mercy Stone's lavish body he would never have learned to feel the reality of the world or understand the particularities of sense and reflection that others have taken as their right." Cuyler Goodwill is, by far, the most interesting and well-developed character in the book. But Mercy dies in childbirth, and Daisy is taken to be raised by a neighbor, Clarentine Flett, for the first eleven years of her life.
The tantalizing richness of the first chapter is never fulfilled in the rest of the book. I have to admit, I did find the next-to-last chapter of the novel, "Illness and Decline, 1985," somewhat entertaining as I was reading it lying in Sarasota Memorial Hospital, recovering from knee surgery. Grandma Flett, as Daisy has come to be known, has moved to Sarasota and ends up in the same hospital for a double-bypass surgery after collapsing from a heart attack on her condominium balcony.
What I really liked the most about this was how Shields called it a "diary" in the title, but it really wasn't at all. In fact, the only section written in a strong first-person voice was the opening bit about her birth and details about her mother that the narrator wouldn't know. Most of what you put together about Daisy Goodwill's life is what other people say (or don't say) about her. And her name constantly changes (in one section she is referred to as Mrs Flett). Terrifically clever. Great writing.
Recommended for: lovers of good writing. Some people call this a "woman's novel," but I think that sells the novel, and intelligent men, short.
The first few sections were interesting, and the end was thought-provoking. The middle 200 pages were mostly tedious for me. Although I understand the meta comments about the difficulties of biography/autobiography as it relates to truth, I just didn't find it compelling. We're always kept at arm's length from Daisy, and she in turn is always at arm's length from everyone in her life. It's a challenge to make a reader care about someone we can't really get to know, and it just didn't happen for me in this case. The book contains a section of photographs which are supposed to be the people in the story, although their physical characteristics don't always match up to what is written, nor do the photos always seem to be from the right era to my inexpert eye, so I found them more distracting and off-putting than intriguing.
Recommended for: stonemasons, ... I give up - I cannot think of anyone to whom I would recommend this book.
Quote: "When we say a thing or an event is real, never mind how suspect it sounds, we honor it. But when a thing is made up - regardless of how true and just it seems - we turn up our noses."
I initially gave this fine novel a 10 out of 10 (on the Bookcrossing scale) but am docking a point for the author's cudgel-fisted mishandling of Southern dialect in chaper nine. It actually set my teeth on edge. Also made me realize that I feel somewhat proprietary about the speech of my native land. It's amusing to realize how exotic we are at times to our fellow North Americans.
Ms. Shields’ imaginings of how we talk down here (our “muddied southern tones”) were simply bizarre. Really. I’ve heard a lot of Southern dialects, and nobody, I assure you, talks like that. I probably wouldn’t have minded as much if the rest of the novel hadn’t been so skillful.
My main point, though, is that this novel is well worth your time. The dialect speeches in chapter nine did make me wince, but even so, the same chapter managed to draw me back with new insight to the last illness of my mother-in-law, who died in our home a few years ago. Thanks to Carol Shields, I could almost (a big “almost”) imagine how sad, how irritating, and how humorous it is to be the dear old woman who is dying.
Think about the title as you read.
As an aside, though relevant given the book's title and cover, constant references were made to stone and flowers: her mother's maiden name was stone, she was born into a quarrying town, her father was a stonemason and made his money in stone, build towers of stone; her surrogate mother was a gardener, her husband a botanist, Daisy maintained a lush garden and wrote about them, she and her final friends had floral names: her father-in-law returned to the Orkneys - described as islands of superficial vegetation, growing over stone.
I very much enjoyed the first half of this book, but by the middle section and then the end, I had grown weary of it. There are often long internal narrative and descriptive sections that wear thin for anyone not interested in that sort of thing. Much of the writing was beautiful, but pften bogged down with too much imagery, and far too much introspection. The point of the section being blunt like a baseball bat to the head, even if the point itself was ephemeral and complex.
It's hard to criticise a book of such a formidable reputation. It iis an impressive lilterary feat, full of wisdom, sections to puzzle over and deconstruct, and sections of pure magic (Mrs Hoad's lunch with Daisy was a particular highlight as far as I was concerned). On the other hand, I did think we heard too little about what Daisy did in the long stretches of time the book doesn't cover. I was happy to be spared the sort of ditzy childhood memoirs found in other novels, but Daisy seemed to age unaccountably fast. It seemed nothing at all happened to her in those vast wastelands of time between 11 and 22, and between 22 and 31.
There are many parallels with Carol Shields' novel 'Larry's Party', not least the structure of the final chapter. I preferred Larry marginally, but they're both good literary reads
The sometimes first-person, sometimes omniscient narration was a little disorientating at time, but not so much as to mar the experience of reading.
This is the fictional autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, a woman whose life spanned almost a century. Daisy knew absolutely nothing about Mercy Goodwill, her mother, who died giving birth to her in 1905, and never really bonded with her father, who did not raise her during her early childhood. She was born in Tyndall, Manitoba, but raised in Winnipeg by Clarentine, a middle-aged woman who had befriended her mother. Unfortunately, Clarentine met an untimely death when Daisy is eleven, and that is when she joined her father, Cuyler Goodwill, in Indiana. Got that? Daisy was repotted many times in her life. She was widowed twice, became enthralled with a career as a columnist at a local newspaper, where she was known as Mrs. Greenthumb, suffered a nervous breakdown when this career ended, but eventually recovered and then struggled to make sense of who she was and what her life was about.
Daisy Goodwill Flett's life was certainly not unusual or interesting, but Carol Shields allows us to see her from all sides, from different points of view, and explores what a life story is, exactly--is it what others remember about Daisy, what Daisy herself remembered and believed, or is her story the sum of the documented facts about her? I found this book tragic because she is so all alone most of her life, especially at the end, when she cannot make herself understood and is left with her memories. Her children are puzzled as to why she would leave this possession or that to them, and when they encountered facts they did not know about, they misinterpreted them. Surely, Daisy's last life, in a retirement home in Florida, must have been unrecognizable to her. At this point, her children and grandchildren were geographically spread far and wide, and Grandma Flett became an idea, an abstraction. In the end, her children even chose the wrong flower for her funeral.
When I read obituaries of women who were born eighty or more years ago, I'll wonder all the more what exactly happened between bridge club, gardening, and cooking. Is that all there was? The Stone Diaries is a fascinating novel that will stay in my mind for awhile.
Yet, despite that, the first line, the title, this isn't memoir. First person peeps out only in bits here and there in the story--you don't feel this is Daisy's voice. It reads more like omniscient, with lots of other narrative devices: newspaper articles, letters, lists, looks at her by other points of view. It's not an extraordinary life, the kind that makes the history books, just a rather typical life of a North American woman of the twentieth century--born in Mantioba, Canada and ending her life in Florida. But the novel encapsulates much about the experiences of a woman, the stages of life, family and the changes in the world around her through the decades. The style is very lyrical--much of it told in present tense, with poetic prose at times and striking insights into life.
I still feel a bit distanced from Daisy at the end--as if I quite don't know her--but strangely as if I know myself a bit better by the novel's end.