A few months ago I read The Stone Diaries, a novel that Margaret Atwood aptly describes as Carol Shields’ ‘glory book’. I absolutely loved it. So when I was invited to review The Republic of Love, the novel that gave Shields her first literary breakthrough to mark its reissued edition, I jumped at the chance.
When reading The Stone Diaries, I was struck how Carol Shields portrays the ordinary life, creating a stunning character driven novel full of layers. Yet again when reading The Republic of Love, I was fascinated with Shields talent to celebrate the richness of ordinary peoples’ lives, creating a character driven, immersive read.
And now, after reading two of Shields novels, I’ve come to the conclusion that she was a brilliant social satirist.
First published in 1992, The Republic of Love is the ‘ordinary’ love story of Fay and Tom, neighbours across the street from each other who are not aware the other exists. However in my view Fay and Tom are not particularly that ordinary. Fay is a folklorist who specialises in mermaids, Tom is a minor celebrity, a late night radio talk-show host. Both in denial of their loneliness, they each try to make sense of their failed relationship history in a close knit community made up of couples. Often sardonically narrated through conversations Fay and Tom each have with their friends, family and acquaintances, where only the point of view of the supporting character is expressed, we as readers are privy to the societal judgements that are projected on to the central characters. In my view, this is literary genius – as well as making me laugh, it made me really empathise with both Tom and Fay as individuals. It also showcases what a brilliant observer of human nature Carol Shields truly was.
There are also elements of the story that are written in a stream of consciousness style, intimately revealing the quirks, flaws and vulnerabilities of the central characters. Littered with profound observations, the language used is clear, simple and succinct, yet also full of emotional intelligence and empathy:
It seems clear that a man of forty with three ex-wives is fair game. In the public domain. It seems clear, too, that Tom has become a comic figure…How does he respond…He feels his mouth move sideways, in what he supposes is a grin. A stone enters his throat, and the skin of his face freezes over. As soon as he can, he moves away to safer territory.
This is a slow burner of a novel and I’ve got to be honest, at times I was really frustrated by it. Especially as it is over halfway through that Tom and Fay finally meet each other. By this point I was genuinely doubting if they would ever meet; and then as soon as they meet, circumstance pulls them apart again. Reflecting on this, I feel Carol Shields may have deliberately chosen to ‘play’ with her readers, as I could feel my anticipation and excitement growing at the prospect of Tom and Fay finally getting together. In a way it reminded me of the excitement of being in the early stages of a new relationship. To me it felt as though Carol Shields was playfully ‘courting’ her readers – and it worked on me.
As with the reissued edition of The Stone Diaries, the new, reissued edition of The Republic of Love includes a forward by the legendary Margaret Atwood. Published by international literature specialists World Editions, it also has a bright, eye catching new cover.
Carol Shields sadly passed in 2003, but after reading The Republic of Love, I stand by my statement I made a few months ago after reading The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields ‘made a profound and unforgettable mark in literature.’
Thank you again to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours and World Editions for inviting me to be part of the blog tour to promote the re-publication of The Republic of Love. To read the reviews from my fellow book bloggers, please see below: