by Carol Shields
Penguin (Non-Classics), April 1, 1995
This book won a Pulitizer Prize in 1995, and it was an honor well deserved. I'd never even heard of it, I just picked up up at the Goodwill because the description on the back cover intrigued me, but once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down.
The story is a fictionalized autobiography of one Daisy Goodwill Flett. Born around the turn of the 20th century and living until the 1980s, Shield's Flett reflects simultaneously on her own tragic life and the life of a North American century. The mix and overlap between these two subjects is fascinating, and Shields' writing is first rate, making this a pleasure to read.
Though it is written as if it's an autiobiography, The Stone Diaries does not limit itself to subject matter that its protagonist could have known. Starting on the day of Daisy's birth, with her mother, Mercy, and moving both backward and forward through time, the book gives perspectives and experiences of many of the supporting characters as well, including Daisy's father, the woman who raises her, her husband, and her children. Though the speaker is sometimes not clearly identified, the moves between perspectives are far less confusing than would be expected (don't worry, it doesn't read like As I Lay Dying or anything like that). The story is actually told in a way I don't think I've ever seen before, with a mix of omniscent and present narration, and constantly moving time and perspective. Shields deserves her award just for being able to pull that off successfully, nevermind the story!
But the story is compelling. Daisy's life is hard and full of tragedy (the childbearing death of her mother, twice widowhood, etc.), but the tragedy takes backseat the both Daisy's and the other characters' knack for reinvention of themselves when circumstances change. Both as a human story and as a parable for the countries in which the novel takes place (the U.S. and Canada), these reinventions work very well.
I was impressed enough by this book that I passed it on to my mother, and I will be on the lookout for more of Carol Shields' work. I'd definitely recommend it.