The San Diego Tribune called The Stone Diaries a "universal study of what makes women tick." With Larry's PartyCarol Shields has done the same for men. Larry Weller, born in 1950, is an ordinary guy made extraordinary by his creator's perception, irony, and tenderness. Larry's Party gives us, as it were, a CAT scan of his life, in episodes between 1977 and 1997, that seamlessly flash backward and forward. We follow this young floral designer through two marriages and divorces, and his interactions with his parents, friends, and a son. Throughout, we witness his deepening passion for garden mazes--so like life, with their teasing treachery and promise of reward. Among all the paradoxes and accidents of his existence, Larry moves through the spontaneity of the seventies, the blind enchantment of the eighties, and the lean, mean nineties, completing at last his quiet, stubborn search for self. Larry's odyssey mirrors the male condition at the end of our century with targeted wit, unerring poignancy, and faultless wisdom.
The book chronicles the life of Larry Weller - an ordinary man with an unusual job. Larry creates mazes, and as he gets older, his work becomes highly sought after. Along the way, Larry gets married (twice), divorced (twice), has a son, moves and has a near-fatal health event. Each chapter focuses on one aspect of Larry's life. Sometimes we learn about his first marriage; other times we learn about the relationship with his son. The final chapter culminates into Larry's Party - a dinner party where he is circled by loved ones and friends - and gets a chance to see his many blessings.
Overall, I enjoyed Larry's Party. If I had to make a complaint, it was the constant repeating of information. I wasn't sure if Shields was trying to make each chapter standalone, but the constant reintroduction of known facts about Larry's life got on my nerves. It's a small complaint, really, and certainly wouldn't prevent me from recommending Larry's Party to other readers.
I look forward to reading more by Carol Shields and am glad to have read this Orange Prize winner. It's the type of character-driven fiction I always enjoy.
The other two novels I've read by this author (The Stone Diaries and Unless) are about women's agency. I was curious to see what she would do with men. Larry isn't an alpha male. He's successful, yet he doesn't have a clear purpose for his life. Things work out for Larry, though. He finds a way to earn a living by doing what he loves – designing mazes. The women in Larry's life have stronger personalities, and they all upstage him whenever he's with them in the pages of his story.
When Larry met his second wife, Beth, she was working on a doctoral thesis on “women saints and the nature of feminine goodness.” Goodness is a theme of Shields's later novel, Unless. The central character in The Stone Diaries bears the name Goodwill. It might be interesting to trace this theme through Shields's body of work.
I enjoyed the writing style of this book and actually found myself looking through pictures of hedge mazes on the internet when I was finished reading. The main character could be the guy next door. His life isn't a big event, it's just life, which is refreshing and a perfect fit for this writing style. The people feel real, they have a sort of evolution to them and not every ending is a happy one, but still love pushes on, characters take the next turn in their evolution and keep wandering through their lives, eventually meeting up again in the end.
I can't say that I enjoyed the repetition of history, though. Whenever Larry looked back on the past it seemed like we had to slosh through a lot of the same old stuff to get at what was new. It's possible that maybe the author wrote this way so that people could pick up from where they left off, no matter how long they left the book waiting for their return. Getting lost wasn't a problem for me because I couldn't put the book down. There wasn't any real plot point that drove me to devour it, I just enjoyed reading that much.
We have chapters with particular aspects of Larry: "Larry's Love," "Larry's Work," "Larry's Folks," even "Larry's Penis" to review his sexual experiences. As the book progresses, each chapter gives a kind of recap of past events - and while giving a somewhat curious idea to the reader (could these have been published before, as shorter pieces?), the real intent is to adopt a kind of parochial stance toward each of Larry's various facets. This is certainly the approach Larry seems to take. He's not particularly sophisticated or well-read; his emotions often hit him with surprise and he meets them with distrust. Ms. Shields drops hapless Larry into a coma that lasts three weeks; during this time he is cared for by strangers, and his son (from whose mother Larry is divorced) comes and speaks to him fervently, and reads the daily paper to him every day, cover-to-cover. This is the perfect comparison to make with our dim-ish hero: he lurches from one thing to the next in life, not knowing how people care for him.
The eponymous party is the last event of the book. Those attending take up a trendy conversation about what it means to be a man at the end of the millenium. Our author makes it clear: it means going through life relatively cluelessly, acting honorably toward men and women, understanding that as relations with women go, that we're in an experimental age, where roles are all in a state of flux. For which we should all be thankful.
Ms. Shields is very compassionate toward her characters and her readers. Her ear is one of her stronger suits - she knows how people speak and how they express how they feel. This is a sweet piece of work, and its ambition is to capture the essence of a rare species, the white North American male. She succeeds in taking her readers on an interesting emotional journey - that's something she always succeeds at.
Just like life!
The good news is that this story ends at midlife, where there is still hope for redemption, unlike the Stone Diaries, which carries this pessimism a bit further.
Reading Larry's Party is like watching selected scenes from a movie. Each chapter covers a short time in Larry's life and is self-contained, almost like a short story. Shields provides details as if previous chapters had not been written; for example, well into the book she described Larry's parents, and his education, even though earlier chapters covered these aspects of his life in detail. At the beginning of the book, Larry is in his late twenties; by the end, he is 47 -- the same age as I am now. I could relate to Larry's journey through adulthood, and think this book may be more enjoyable for older audience.
There were some interesting philosophical life observations but, on the whole, I was left feeling ambivalent towards a character who seemed to be confused by his life and powerless to make any significant decisions.
The concept of the maze informs the whole structure and approach of the book. Various stages of Larry's life are told from different time-perspectives which give different slants/interpretations on the same events, just as our own feelings about various events and relationships change over time. The maze as a an analogy for life: an unforseen and unknown end or centre, unexpected twists and turns, doubling back, uncertainties mixed with certainties, usually only one exit to a maze (and to life), but sometimes there are more just as in life there are more options and paths. The prize in the middle of a maze is usually a garden, a pool, a fountain, etc and in life, for Shields, the prize is love and the sharing of life, of hopes, and true communication with another person. The book is infused with the intricacies and commonalities of life exhibited through hopes, fears, and desires. Some wonderful examinations of the beauty of languages and words, but their limitations as well. Shields writes very well from a man's perspective.
If anything, the dinner was a bit of an anticlimax, and almost seemed a bit staged, but the trip to get there was wonderful. Well worth reading.
It has to be admired as a feat of writing, if nothing else. Each chapter moves Larry along in his life chronologically, but at the same time each section has its own theme - his kids, his job, his health, etc. Strands of chronology are drawn through each of these themes, the story dipping back into the past as necessary, so it was almost as three-dimensional as the mazes Larry designs for his clients. I was thinking whilst reading that it must have been incredibly difficult to plan out and write, and yet it almost had the feeling of something written for fun, for the joy of writing. Carol Shields has a tremendous talent for harnessing the abstract, and he writing is almost like a series of musings - interesting musings that make you think ' yes, that's exactly how it is'.
Oddities in the book - the way that each section recapped the events of previous ones, not as though to bring you up to date with things you may have missed, more as though you hadn't even read the previous chapters. Deliberate, I'm sure, but it will no doubt irritate some readers. On the other hand I'm sure it means you could dip into the book at any chapter, and understand what is going on, or even read a single chapter as a short story.
Characterisation is strong throughout the book- I grew to know and like minor characters within the space of a page. Curiously enough it is only Larry himself who remains oddly faceless throughout, despite the fact we know almost everything about him.
The final chapter is much trumpeted amongst the blurb, and it is a good challenging read. I didn't particularly buy or welcome the final 'twist', but overall an excellent book.
This is not a book to rush through with excitement; in fact, you can lay it down and start a new chapter with weeks in between because Carol Shields recaps his life in each chapter.
This is a solid, good read.
Over the course of his life, Larry Weller goes from flower arranger at a flower store to a master designer of landscape mazes. I’m not that into botany, so that part was only marginally interesting to me; however, I would definitely like to visit some of the mazes described in the book, particularly in Europe. More interesting to me was the progression in Larry’s thought life and love life over the course of the book. He starts out not knowing much about himself or what he wants in his twenties and of course knowing himself infinitely better by the time he’s in his late forties. Youth is so wasted on the young, right? (Not that there aren’t exceptions to you youngsters out there!) Being in my early forties, I definitely related to that aspect of the book.
“He (Larry) is recovering; in a sense he’s spent his whole life in a state of recovery, but has only begun, at age forty-five, to breathe in the vital foreknowledge of what will become of the sovereign self inside him, that luxurious ornament. He’d like that self to be more musical and better lit, he’d like to possess a more meticulous sense of curiosity, and mostly he’d like someone, some thing to love. He’s getting close. He feels it. He’s halfway awake now, and about to wake up fully.”
Some of the aspects I didn’t like about the book are that it was a little boring in places, i.e. the botany and the fact that Larry is just a regular Joe with not much in the way of personality. I think that was supposed to be the point, though. There is even a chapter dedicated to his name and what the stereotypes of “Larrys” are. Another aspect is that in quite a few places she repeats details that we already know about characters or events. I know that was by design, but I’m not sure I liked it. Also, it is a bit raunchy in places. There’s a chapter called “Larry’s P#n*s” that goes on and on in very descriptive detail about that specific body part and all the different names for it that people use. Some people would find that extremely funny, I’m sure, but I could have done without the more graphic parts of that chapter.
The last chapter is called “Larry’s Party,” and that chapter and the dinner party itself wrapped up everything in Larry’s life to that point very nicely. I really liked the metaphor that our lives are mazes. Sometimes there’s only one way in and one way out. Sometimes there are four exits. But always, there is the ‘goal’ in the center. Honestly, the last chapter made me lift my rating from 3 1/2 stars to 4. It was very cleverly done. And although this book was my least favorite of Shields’ books so far, I still plan on reading many more if not all of her works. I really do think she was an amazing writer.
A good book showing the life of a man and his family, how through his talent and passion for his work he evolves and improves his social status, but in the end he remains the same person.
So far I've read the first three Orange Prize winners now, and Larry's Party is far and away the best. The writing is solid, but unlike the other two winners, there is a compelling plot that pulls you through. Much like The Stone Diaries, this story is not told in a traditional way. It's broken up into 15 chapters, each of which is about a specific time in Larry's life. They are chronological and the point of view remains the same - it seems to just serve the purpose of moving the plot along. For me it was successful.
This book had a really similar feel to the Rabbit novels by John Updike. As a huge fan of said Rabbit novels, that's certainly a compliment, and I would recommend this book to anyone who likes complete stories; that is, this book is not just a screenshot of Larry at a particular point in time. You follow him through his relationships, the raising of his child, the advancement of his career, and you learn how he changes as a person as these things in his life change. In fact, I can't think of a book with more solid character development.
The extended metaphor of a maze as Larry's life could be trite from a lesser writer, because at first glance this seems like a bit of a hackneyed comparison, but actually Shields takes the reader on an unpredictable journey through Larry's life, drawing more comparisons to a maze than I had initially predicted. Each chapter almost serves as a stand-alone short story, with information introduced in previous chapters expanded upon in time, just as I was wanting more detail. I think this is partly how Shields achieves reader sympathy for Larry, who is such a nice person that Larry's injuries felt like my own.