A Celibate Season

Overview

This epistolary novel probes the inner life of one couple's rocky marriage. Faced with a job-related ten-month separation, Jocelyn and Charles choose to maintain contact through letters--a economic decision that paves the way for two very different and very entertaining sides of the same story. As the months progress, the couple's letters grow less frequent and more revealing--and their "season of celibacy" becomes more of a challenge than either Jocelyn or Charles had imagined. Posing important and timely ...
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Overview

This epistolary novel probes the inner life of one couple's rocky marriage. Faced with a job-related ten-month separation, Jocelyn and Charles choose to maintain contact through letters--a economic decision that paves the way for two very different and very entertaining sides of the same story. As the months progress, the couple's letters grow less frequent and more revealing--and their "season of celibacy" becomes more of a challenge than either Jocelyn or Charles had imagined. Posing important and timely questions about commitment, monogamy, and the pressures of career and money, this insightful novel by two extraordinary writers offers a perceptive and hopeful look at how men and women really communicate.
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Editorial Reviews

Quill and Quire
Intelligent [and] subtle....Like all our favorite seasons, it passes by too quickly.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Friends for three decades, the Pulitzer Prizewinning author of The Stone Diaries and Canadian novelist Howard The Manipulator collaborated on this touching, if facile, epistolary novel. First published in Canada in 1991, the work follows 10 months in the life of Canadians Jocelyn and Charles Jock and Chas Selby, who vow a season of celibacy when Jock takes a temporary government job on the other side of the continent. Opting against e-mail and expensive phone calls, they decide to communicate through the old-fashioned medium of letters, hoping as well to rekindle the romance in their 20-year-old marriage. The letters evolve into revealing, diarylike entries about architect Chass lack of employment, Jocks new life in Ottawa, their two teenaged children, and, ultimately, the state of their marriage. Many of these entries are intimate and searching, musing ruefully and honestly about the mysteries of the connubial tie. Some possess that combination of philosophical sincerity and earnest clumsiness that is often more charming in a good letter than in literature. Chas writes, sometimes it seems to me that men and women advance through time along parallel lines that obey the laws of geometry and never truly intersect. As Jock and Chass separation wears on, both struggle with the temptation to stray from celibacy. For a story so deep on emotion, the ending may strike readers as too quick and rather blas. But Shields, who wrote the Chas letters, and Howard, who penned the letters from Jock, are skillful writers, and the epistolary form adds dimension to their thoughtful novel of love, marriage and forgiveness. Howards foreword sheds light on the inspiration for and particulars of their collaborating process. May
Library Journal
Jocelyn is a lawyer who accepts a temporary job in a different city, leaving behind her husband of 20 years to look after their teenaged children. Seeking to rekindle their romance, they decide to keep in touch through letters. The result is a thoughtful, probing exploration of relationships. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Michael Porter
The epistolary form suits the story perfectly, providing an oblique view of these pivotal events in the lives of Chas and Jock while focusing on their occasionally differing perceptions and reactions.
The New York Times Book Review
Quill and Quire
Intelligent [and] subtle....Like all our favorite seasons, it passes by too quickly.
Kirkus Reviews
An unexpectedly appealing epistolary novel by Canadian novelist Shields (Larry's Party, 1997, etc.) and playwright Howard. The first problem with a contemporary epistolary novel is one of credibility: Apart from e-mail, who nowadays writes enough letters to form a book? The explanation offered here (that a husband and wife agree in advance to communicate only through the mail for one year) isn't very plausible, but it suffices for the sake of the story. Jocelyn, or "Jock" (whose sections are written by Howard), starts things off with a letter to her husband Charles, or "Chas" (authored by Shields). Jock is a lawyer from Vancouver who has just accepted a one-year post on a government commission (to study the "feminization of poverty") in Ottawa, leaving Chas behind to look after their teenaged children Greg and Mia. Chas is an unemployed architect who's happy to play Mr. Mom while looking for work and writing an occasional poem on the side. In Ottawa, Jock quickly learns how to deal with the assorted policy wonks and egomaniacs who populate the political world, while Chas refines his skills at groveling in cover letters and feigning enthusiasm for projects that make his blood run cold. Naturally, the two miss each other, yet a strain quickly creeps into their relations after the first few weeks apart. Chas is hard-pressed to juggle his work and family at once, and both of his kids (especially Mia) are at an age when a mother's hand is greatly needed. Jock, meanwhile, can't even remember what home life is like, subsisting as she does in a succession of hotel rooms and tiny apartments. When she returns briefly for Christmas, she doesn't even recognize her own home—literally so,since Chas has renovated it. Eventually, she has to decide whether to accept an extension of her appointment. What would you do? A totally lackluster story, yet narrated with enough charm to draw any reader in.
From the Publisher
"A Celibate Season is intelligent, subtle, symmetrical; like all our favourite seasons, it passes by all too quickly." -Quill & Quire

"Great fun-- This is accomplished light entertainment from two serious writers. Beneath its polished surface lurks a reactionary fable." -The Montreal Gazette

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140275117
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 5/1/1999
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.74 (h) x 0.45 (d)

Meet the Author

Carol Shields
Carol Shields is the author of ten novels and short-story collections, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries and, most recently, Larry's Party. Blanche Howard has written several other novels and plays, including The Manipulator. Her adaptation of A Celibate Season for the stage was a finalist in the National Theatre playwriting competition.

Biography

Carol Shields's characters are often on the road less traveled, and the trip is never boring. She has written about a folklorist, a poet, a maze designer, a translator, even other writers -- appropriate professions in novels in which characters struggle to find their own paths in life.

Shields often focused on female characters, most notably in The Stone Diaries, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel documenting the birth, death, and everything in between of Daisy Goodwill. Goodwill's story is told over a century, in various voices, featuring Shields's wry humor and her ability to convey what she has called "the arc of human life."

But don't pigeonhole Shields as a "women's writer." "I have directed a fair amount of energy and rather a lot of rage into that particular corner [of the] problem of men and women, particularly men and women who write and how women's novels are perceived differently from men's," Shields said in a 2001 interview. In 1997's Larry's Party, she swapped genders, writing from the perspective of a male floral designer who discovers a passion for mazes.

Unafraid to experiment with genres, Shields wrote an epistolary novel (A Celibate Season, coauthored with Blanche Howard), a sort of "literary mystery" about the posthumous discovery of a murdered poet's genius (Swann), and short stories (collected in Dressing for the Carnival and other titles). Though she often covered serious topics, she rarely did so without humor. Her novel of mid-life romance, Republic of Love, was called by The New York Times a "touching, elegantly funny, luscious work of fiction," an assessment that could be applied to the bulk of her work.

Shields changed her viewpoint yet again for Unless, but the circumstance was a tragic one. The book, which resurrects the main character from Dressing Up for the Carnival's "A Scarf," was written during the author's battle with breast cancer. "I never want to sound at all mystical about writing,'' she said in a 2002 interview, ''but this book -- it just came out." Though not touching on her own illness, Shields did what she had always done -- took her own questions and lessons, then used them to produce a story that speaks its own truth.

Shields passed away on July 16, 2003; she was 68.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Carol Ann Warner
    2. Hometown:
      Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 2, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Oak Park, Illinois
    1. Date of Death:
      July 16, 2003
    2. Place of Death:
      Toronto, Canada

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One

The Château Laurier
Ottawa, Ont.
Sept. 2


Dearest Chas,

    I bet you didn't expect me to pick up pen and Château L. stationery ten minutes after your phone call. Surprise! Here I am, huddled on one of their oversize beds, which makes me feel as though I were drifting around the Strait of Georgia in our leaky old dinghy. When I think of all the times you've spent alone in hotel rooms — Regina, Victoria, Edmonton -- and how I used to envy your freedom, your adventure! It never occurred to me that it might feel this empty.

    What do I do now? A man, I suppose, would head for the bar. (I can't — I'll drown.) I'll have to pour my own. Damn! I just remembered. You know that little bottle of medicinal Scotch you tucked into my briefcase? (Sweet you — oh God!) Well, at the last minute I decided to bring yet another legal tome and there wasn't room for the Scotch so I took it out. All I have is a miniature bottle of gin supplied by Air Canada -- I suppose I could mix it with mouthwash. I deserve to crawl drinkless across the Sahara — which, incidentally, the dimensions of this room are beginning to remind me of.

    Ingratitude! It was classy of the Commission to put me in such a room, so royally maroon! Heavy maroon quilts, maroon drapes tied back over white sheers that hide what turns out to be two old-fashioned windows (with wooden sills!) that actually open, reluctantly, from the bottom and have to be propped up. But I'd have felt less bereft if the room had been little, with,instead of two big double beds, one modest, cell-like single covered with chaste white cotton -- why two doubles, anyway? Are there people so sexually athletic that, having worn out the resilience of bed number one, they roll — not coming unstuck — onto bed number two.... I'd better get off that line of thought.

    I got off to a great country-bumpkin start — tripped getting out of the taxi. There's a step up to the revolving doors here at the Château, and I missed and would have fallen on my face (falling on my face — a hidden message from the psyche?) if the doorman hadn't had the reflexes of Rambo. I've got the jitters, no use pretending otherwise — about tomorrow, I mean. There I'll be, all got up in that great grey suit from Chapman's — Mother tried her damnedest to wheedle the price out of me, but I refused to blow my cover — in my suitable navy-blue blouse, navy-blue pumps (and matching soul) — clutching my leather Lady Executive Briefcase, stumbling in and introducing myself to Senator Pierce — oh Lord! How do you address a senator? I forgot to find out.

    I keep remembering how sceptical Mr. Enright seemed when I told him I was taking a leave of absence. "Women's issues —" was all he said, and then sort of shook his head and grinned.

    Tell me I won't blow it. This is high-powered stuff. I need you. To reassure me. In person, not over a disembodied electronic gadget. And I've got the guilts again about leaving you to cope.

    Happy about Greg's two goals! I keep thinking of him skating out onto the ice and tossing his head back like Wayne Gretzky. That little head toss — I don't know why — keeps swamping me with tenderness. Imprinting the hero. Seeing oneself as a glorious hunter/warrior/pilot — maybe it's the male way of blocking any suspicion that ploughing around in muddy trenches or being impaled on a lance or tumbling in flames into the Atlantic isn't that much fun. I guess invading space must be next, that's what little boys dream of now. (Little girls? I notice no one ever cleans space up.)

    I'm trying not to worry about Greg. Or Mia. Or about you, volunteering for this house-husband thing. No vestigial role-model anywhere, is there? Your father's ashes would ignite, and as for your mother, I did think she sounded a mite snappish when we told her, didn't you?

    I'll write after tomorrow's meeting. It's only nine o'clock Vancouver time (midnight here), but maybe if I tunnel under the maroon covers my mind will shut down. Why didn't I steal two little gins?

    Much, much love, and even to the rotten teenagers. Tell them I called them that — perversely, it'll make them feel loved.

Love,
Jock


P.S. My God, the lentils! I bought two jars; I was going to learn to make lentil soup. They're on the top shelf, seems a shame to waste them.


P.P.S. Sequins! Mia has to have them for her ballet costume. Don't worry, I'll think of something.


29 Sweet Cedar Drive
North Vancouver, B.C.
4 September


Dear Jock,

    I'm sitting here by the kitchen window, which is where I moved my old drafting table and typewriter yesterday. Greg came out of his sulks for a whole ten minutes and gave me a hand carrying it up from the basement (my God it's heavy — you can't beat good solid oak), while Mia stood by and exclaimed in that shrill piping way she has that it's a campy old thing and that it makes the kitchen look "unbalanced." Tell me, what do thirteen-year-old girls know about balance? "Never mind," I told her, "this is where it stays."

    You wouldn't believe what this simple shift of furniture has done for my morale, which was draggier than usual after a weekend of heavy parenting — more about that later. Here I sit, king of the kitchen, in that wasted space between the fridge and the kitchen table. (We moved your bamboo plant stand into the dining room where your mother's old tea trolley used to be, and as for the tea trolley — more about that later too.)

    At any rate, I feel this dreary morning like a man reborn. The sun is not pouring in — you wouldn't believe me if I said it was — but there is definitely something about the sight of tall, dark dripping trees that makes for a minor-chord melancholy that's one step up from basement-itis. God only knows why I put up with that basement room all this time. One more year of strip lighting and cinder-block walls and mildewed straw matting might have destroyed me totally. And so, despite the non-balancing kitchen and the sticky jam jar someone's left on my drafting table, I feel installed, ensconced, magisterial even.

    Of course it's helped that your letter arrived this morning. I've read it through three times and feel a real pang, whatever the hell a pang is, reading about your snug maroon cocoon at the Château Laurier and that wasted width of empty bed. In retrospect it seems somewhat wacky to me that, when this Ottawa job came up, we didn't stop to discuss or even consider the problems that might accompany ten months of celibate life. Does this seem odd to you? A little suspect in fact? I suppose, like a pair of fools, we thought we could just shut down for a spell, the way we disconnect the pool in winter or turn off the furnace for the summer.

    Speaking of the furnace, it appears we need a new thermal valve which is going to set us back — with labour — two hundred and fifty whopping bucks. When I flicked on the heat and got a series of little cheeping noises and then a crumpling sound and, finally, silence, I called our speedy twenty-four-hour emergency serviceman, who said he was awfully sorry but this was the busiest time of the year and he wouldn't be able to make it up here until Friday. "Well, that's just great" I said. "What are we supposed to do till then — freeze?" There was a pause, and then he said that maybe he could get over here on Wednesday if I could promise that the lady of the house would be in. "I am the lady of the house," I told him, "and I will be in." There followed another pause, longer this time, and then he said, finally, something that sounded like, "Yeah?" So it looks as if we only have to stay chilly for a couple more days. Which is another good thing about moving my table to the kitchen — I can open the oven door and bask in its fierce kilowatt-eating coil, never mind what the hydro bill's going to look like at the end of the month. (You didn't say, Jock, whether you are on the gov't payroll yet or not.)

    Can't wait to hear how you made out with your senator. Put it in writing so I can savour it. Lord, I miss you!

Love,
Chas


P.S. Glad we agreed on the letter writing. I think it'll keep us sane. Greg says he could get us on e-mail if I'd just install a modem, but do we want the kids accessing our private disclosures? I think not. Besides, it costs money.


Château Laurier
Sept. 4

Dear Chas,

    Well, veni, vidi, vici — except that I didn't conquer. In fact I think I came a bit unstuck. I was half an hour early leaving the Château Laurier, and after a leisurely stroll to the East Block I was still twenty minutes early. I was tempted to just hang around, but the guards aren't great on hangers-around so I walked over to the Centre Block and pretended intense interest in the portraits of ex-prime ministers. One of the guards told me to notice how Mr. Diefenbaker's eyes followed me around wherever I moved, a thought that did more to unnerve than to uplift. But finally the clock in the Peace Tower bonged eleven, so back I went. A guard phoned ahead and gave me directions to Senator Pierce's office. He hadn't arrived yet, but five minutes later he came bustling in and I introduced myself. He looked quite uncomprehending.

    "Jocelyn Selby," I repeated. "The legal counsel from Vancouver. For the Commission?"

    "You're the legal counsel?" he asked, with just the right degree of astonishment. He managed — now this is subtle -- to imply that such a dish couldn't be such a heavy, but if indeed he should be so fortunate then he would personally get down on his knees and thank le bon Dieu. (In spite of the anglo name his mother tongue is French. I'd never noticed the slight and charming — what else? — accent on TV.) I felt like a combination emancipated new-look career woman and Playboy bunny.

    "Well," he said, and flashed me a Robert Redford smile, including dimple, "this Commission is going to be more interesting than I'd thought." Injustice! The man must be fifty if he's a day, yet I'll bet he looks, if anything, better than he did at thirty. The blue eyes, the slightly silvering and perfectly styled (blow-dried) hair, the perfect suit, the trace of accent -- and to top it off, he's not just another beau visage.

    He went into a kind of crouch, and, with a sort of fascinated horror, I saw he was about to kiss my hand, when suddenly my eardrums were shattered by a raucous female voice behind me. "Still charming them, you old goat? Christ, you must be some kind of Dorian Gray. Where's the real you? Hidden in the bowels of the Peace Tower?"

    I wheeled around to face the most unlikely looking woman — unlikely in that setting, I mean. She was — is — immensely broad in the beam and wearing brown cords that stretch tightly over her thighs and a faded blue plaid shirt, not tucked in. Long black greasy hair. Striped headband. Thick, eye-distorting glasses. Senator Pierce swept past me in my neat get-up and perfect hair, threw his arms around her, and said, "Jess, you old cuss, you still look like a leftover hippie."

    That is Jessica Slattery. She's actually ON THE COMMISSION! Appointed at the last minute after the women's groups got so mad that there wasn't a woman commissioner on a commission to look into the feminization of poverty. (I suppose my sex got me my appointment too — a nice reversal on the usual theme.)

    I've found out since that Jessica is the president of the Canadian Social Welfare Council (which I didn't know existed), that she's been riding the poverty horse for years, and that she believes in farting when she feels like it. Unfortunately she felt like it just as Senator Pierce was introducing us, and I didn't handle it with aplomb. I had managed my most gracious how do you do? when she let go, and the Senator guffawed and I would gladly have disappeared into a fourth-dimensional time-warp. (What I did was turn red and mutter, "Excuse me." And then I was mortified that the Senator might think I'd done it.)


Sept. 5


    Sorry, got interrupted. I've been hunting for a place to stay, but so far no luck.

    I haven't told you about the third commissioner, Dr. Grey. (Grey by name and grey by nature, my first impression.) He'll take some getting to know. He's a skinny grey man in a grey flannel suit with a grey voice. I was — am — astonished! Mother babbled on and on about Austin Grey — McGill University, economist, statistician, Rhodes Scholar, poet — and I don't know exactly what I expected, but I thought he'd be, well, not-grey. He's even greyer lined up against unbelievable Jessica and beautiful Vance. (Vance has asked me to call him Vance, but it isn't easy. Makes me think I'm talking to a movie star.) Jessica controlled her sphincter in Dr. Grey's presence — does natural dignity impose restraint on others, as Mother is always preaching? I'll watch, or rather listen, and let you know.

Love,
Jock


29 Sweet Cedar Drive
North Vancouver, B.C.
9 September


Dear Jock,

    Your letter just arrived and it bucked me up no end, which makes two pluses this Monday morning.

    I'm feeling more or less buoyant because I've had a lead on a possible job opening. You remember Sanderson and Sanderson Associates? Talbot Sanderson is the cretin who wore the black cape and eye patch at the Ticknows' New Year's Eve bash last year, and his wife is the one who trounced me in Trivial Pursuit the same night. If you'll remember, she couldn't get over the fact that I didn't know what Lassie's master's name was. The two of them run a fair-sized design company that puts out decent work, though nothing earth-shattering. They were big on urban development for a time, but like Robertson's they've had to lay off half their architects. Now they've landed that big harbour-development contract that was in the papers last summer — remember? — and will probably be taking on staff.

    The unlikely person who put the bug in my ear was that old grump Gil Grogan, all sotto voce through the hedge Saturday morning when I was out hacking back the alder. There hasn't been anything public, he said, but the word was out that they'd be taking on two or possibly three temporary staff. Naturally I tried to find out how he'd heard the rumour, but he just stood there swaying and looking smug and mumbling about keeping the old ear to the old ground. (Now there's a man who seems to thrive on celibacy. Since Meg's died he's taken up jogging and other primordial sins such as grouchiness and neighbourhood vigilance.) Still I was grateful and told him so.

    I heard the same happy rumour about Sanderson, etc., from — guess who? — your mother. (By the way, her cold is better. She specifically asked me to tell you, since she's too busy to write, she says, until after the Fall Fair.) She stopped by on her way over to the church hall to bring us a coffee cake and an eggplant casserole. In some ways it was unfortunate we didn't hear her pulling into the driveway. She let herself in the front door and caught us in the middle of carrying the drafting table up the basement stairs. Greg had the top end and I had the bottom and we were negotiating that narrow spot by the landing, Greg his usual grunting, unaccommodating self, Mia screaming at us from the top of the stairs to move to the right, move to the left, and me blustering away, I'm afraid, in my loudest sergeant-major voice and turning the air a smokey blue — in all, not exactly a Walton family picnic. Suddenly your mother appeared over Mia's shoulder, looking pale and puzzled and asking what in sweet heaven we were doing and were we sure that Jocelyn would approve. (I hope you do, my beauty, because I'd sooner dynamite the thing before moving it another inch.)

    To smooth things over I asked her if she'd care for a sherry, and true to form and to no one's surprise she said, "Well, maybe just a teeny-weeny one." I also offered Greg a cold beer. (After all, that drafting table weighs a ton, and he is seventeen years old, and I was having a beer myself.) I wish you'd been here to hear the curtness with which your firstborn refused this kindly meant offer. "No thanks," he said (sneered), and walked over to the fridge and poured himself a large, wholesome glass of milk, which he drank eyeing me and my beer all the time with a look so pious it made me wonder if you and I maybe overdid the puritan principles. Your mother chimed in with, "I don't think a teeny-weeny bit of beer's all that harmful" — this while I topped up her glass.

    The rain stopped for a whole ten minutes or so, and we were able to take our drinks out on the deck. (It's so green here right now. God, even the air is green. Do you suppose it's healthy breathing green air?) Your mother wiped off one of the deck chairs with a tea towel and settled down. She'd been talking to some friends, she said, and just happened to hear something about a firm called Sanderson and Something -- had I heard of them? — that they were about to take on half a dozen new architects. Naturally I asked her precisely who had given her that information, but she just waved her glove in the air and murmured something or other about keeping an ear to the ground. (Do you think, now I've emerged from my cinder-block cellar, that I too will acquire an aptitude for crucial ear-to-ground skills? I can only hope.)

    Sunday afternoon, after a lunch composed entirely of pecan coffee cake, Mia went roller blading with the Finsteads, those new people across the way, who have, they told me when they picked her up, a series of family outings planned -- bowling next week, hiking the following Sunday, and perhaps an excursion to Squamish in November. Greg disappeared too, saying he had "plans." I pressed him. What plans? Well, he might go down to the rink. Was there a practice on? Not exactly. Who was going to be there? Coupla guys. When would he be back? Dunno. (I loved this kid once.)

    I must revise and type my CV for Sanderson et al. and catch today's mail. We all miss you!

Love,
Chas


P.S. Quit worrying about how you'll do in the big time. My experience with bureaucracy is that anything above mediocre is considered brilliant. You'll do fine.


Château Laurier
Sept. 11


Dear Chas,

    I've phoned down to the desk three times hoping for a letter from you (pretending an urgent message), so will give you an update on my adventures with the Commission while waiting.

    After our initial meeting, the four of us had a get-acquainted luncheon at the Parliamentary Restaurant, which I found a tremendously glamorous thing to do. (Maybe, despite all our Vancouver years, I'm still just a Williams Lake gal.) It's a beautiful room with arched colonnades and windows looking out on the Ottawa River, and round tables, and all sorts of important people, and less-important people watching the important people and feeling important doing it. (I am among the latter category.)

    I nearly yelped as we went in to find myself right behind the environmental minister (I never dreamed he was that tall!) and then noticed that his companion was the Minister of Justice (I never dreamed he was that short).

    As soon as we sat down Jessica clawed around in a pocket of the awful pants and produced a rumpled pack of cigarettes (oh Lord! My sinuses!) and Senator Pierce — Vance — was rude to her about it.

    "Where's your character, woman? I thought you were quitting."

    "Yer not smokin' any more, Van?" she drawled. "Whatsa matter? Lose yer nerve?"

    "No, found my senses."

    Dr. Grey and I smiled weakly at one another and he said, "The buffet is rather good. I would recommend it."

    In the end we all went to the buffet — which was superb! -- and drank a couple of carafes of white wine. I noticed that Vance didn't look around or wave to anyone, and since everyone else seemed to spend a lot of time leaping up and trying to catch the eyes of others, I wondered who it was he was ashamed of. I mean, I'm still wearing my navy and grey uniform, but I blend in pretty well here, clothes-wise. (Matter of fact, I've become sufficiently de-dazzled to recognize that Ottawa is not the haute couture capital of the western world.)

    Okay, I can sympathize with Vance for being a tad reluctant to draw attention to Jessica.

    Not that Jessica was about to let him get away with it. "Hey, Van," she bawled, at one point. "Don't you know anyone? What's yer name — you, the legal counsel —"

    "Jocelyn," I said weakly.

    "Jocelyn — she'd probably like to meet some heavies."

    "She's met you."

    "Shit, Van, you'll have to do better than that — "and just then who should walk in with the Minister of Finance but Senator Kennedy — yes! U.S. Senator Kennedy. Up here to look (enviously, I presume) at Canadian medicare. You can imagine the stir that rippled through our hallowed eatery! And who do you think he recognized? Jessica.

    "Well, well, surely not Jess Slattery. You turn up everywhere, just like a bad penny, don't you?" he said. "How come you're eating subsidized food?"

    "I helped pay for it, didn't I?" Jessica shot back, and then she introduced him to Dr. Grey and to me (I stood up. Should I have?) and pretended to forget Vance, who was doing a knee-bend halfway between standing and sitting and said, in French, "Oh, et un faux senator, M. Pierce," and Kennedy smiled and murmured, "Enchanté!"

    Everyone, even Jessica, speaks fluent French — how I wish mine were better! At that point I forgot how to say anything but oui, which is why I drank too much wine, I guess.


Sept. 12


Still no letter. The hotel clerk no longer answers with, "Yes, may I help you?" He just murmurs, "Nothing." Regretfully.

    Must finish this. Not much more to tell. When we finished lunch Vance shot back the silver-clasped cuffs of his elegant French shirt and looked at his watch and said he had a three-o'clock appointment, but maybe we could get together a little earlier tomorrow before the hearings started.

    "Where you rushing off to, Van? Got a new flame?"

    In a voice that would have frozen Hawaiian rain, Vance said, "Catherine is the only flame I'll ever need." Catherine? Must be his wife.

    Jessica was not frozen. "Lucky Catherine," she drawled, "and unlucky all the rest of them. Let's get the hell out of here. Slurping up the government booze isn't helping the godamn starving women of Canada."

    "Surely no one is starving," I said, sounding about as assertive as talking Jello.

    Jessica turned and glared — or no, she didn't exactly glare. I've been trying to analyse that look. I'd expected accusing or hostile or contemptuous, but that wasn't it. It was some sort of challenge, as though she were testing me to see if I was a fellow woman. I don't think I am. She scares the hell out of me.

    She asked me where I was staying, and when I said I was still at the Château Laurier but was looking for a bedsitter she said, "I live in a group home — always room for one more." I told her I had a line on a place.

    "Suit yerself," she said. "Holler if you change your mind."

    When hell freezes over, I thought — but didn't say. (I do have a line on a bedsitter. Keep your fingers crossed.)

    Know what? Writing letters is turning out to be therapeutic as well as economical. It helps me feel closer to home and also to sort out my own impressions. The phone just isn't a substitute. God, I'm lonesome! I wish we hadn't decided against Thanksgiving — is it too late to change? Although I haven't got the moola for a ticket at the moment. Have you?

    Anyway, I'll look forward to talking to you this weekend -- maybe you'll have my letter by then. They say the postal service is improving. They lie. At the moment I feel low. Why did it have to be Jessica on the Commission?

Much love,
Jock


P.S. Your letter just arrived. The hotel clerk phoned me! He sounded so excited I thought maybe he'd opened it. Thrilled about the Sanderson thing — what's happening? Phone if you get work.


29 Sweet Cedar Drive
North Vancouver, B.C.
15 September


Dear Jock,

    Nothing yet on the Sanderson thing. A week since I sent the application — typed it on the drafting table, which I have in the down position to accommodate the computer. I spent two hours revising and typing the CV, shaping it along the lines you suggested, puffing up that bit about the airport job and playing down the university gold medal, which, all things considered, is now more of an embarrassment than anything else. I then wrote a long, obsequious, and painfully composed letter about how extraordinarily electrified I was by urban harbour projects — this will surprise you, Jock, as much as it did me — and how wonderful and competent and original an architect I am. All I needed was a young, aggressive, and modern-minded firm to hitch myself to and thereby channel my abilities. On and on, yards of it.

    I think, to tell the truth, I got the right formula: about three-fifths self-congratulation and two-fifths professional grovel. At the age of forty-seven I don't suppose I should find it this easy to grovel, but it seems I have a knack for it, especially after nine months full time in the basement. I mentioned, of course, my fourteen years with Bettner's, disclaiming all connection with the Broadway-Peterkin lawsuit, and I also detailed my last eight years with Robertson's (note how cunningly I omitted mention of the free-lance year in the middle — what the hell) and pointed to "harsh economic realities" as the reason for my termination. I thought that sounded more forceful than "the recession" or "the present financial climate." What do you think? "Harsh economic realities" seems to me to have a slightly embittered tone but one that is moderated by the brand of pragmatism suitable for the New Unemployed Me I'm trying so hard to sell. God, I hope this works out. Even a temporary contract, six months or a year, could lead to something permanent, and even if it doesn't, we can get caught up on the household bills. I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything definite.

    I made the mistake of leaving the computer on, and when Greg came whistling in at suppertime he read it. "Are you really going to send this?" he asked me. "Or is this just the rough draft?"

    "What's wrong with it?" I asked. I was in the middle of serving up the eggplant casserole your mother brought.

    "Oh, nothing." He said this in that maddening airy way that you surely remember. "It's okay, I guess."

    I could tell he didn't think it was okay. He slunk out of the kitchen and into the family room with his plate. I asked myself, what does a seventeen-year-old kid know about business letters? Nevertheless, I pursued him. "What exactly is wrong with the letter?" I demanded.

    "That jazz about `harsh realities,'" he said. "It's sort of, you know, sort of —"

    I had to prod him. "Sort of what?"

    "Well," he said, "sort of like begging."

    I told him as calmly as I could that I had considered the phrase carefully, weighed it, and decided it was the best possible choice. "Suit yourself," he said, and settled down to watch a re-run of Archie Bunker, whom I am sure, if he had a choice, he would prefer for an old man.

    Anyway, the letter must be there by now, the die is cast, and now all I have to do is sit back and see what happens next. Waiting around is the worst — the walls seem to press closer and closer, and often I think of how you must have sat in this kitchen and waited for the kids to grow up and go to school and then waited around to hear if you'd been accepted for law school. What did you do with yourself all day?

    By the way, we saw your Senator Pierce being interviewed on The Fifth Estate last night. I think your Robert Redford comparison is a mite flattering considering the good Senator's bobbling paunch and his stertorous huffing into the microphone. Mia said, all incredulity, "Is that Mom's new boss?" and Greg said, "If that turkey doesn't watch out he's going to injure someone with those cufflinks of his." He did make a certain amount of sense, though (Pierce, that is), especially that bit about the plight of widows.

    We look forward to your further adventures. Yes, I agree that our letters seem to be working out better than the damn telephone. Doubtless it was our puritan mothers, bless the two of them, who plied us with guilt about the heaviness of long-distance phoning. Otherwise, why, when I pick up the phone, am I suddenly speechless or reduced to inanities about the rain and the roses?

    I'm off to bed early tonight. Tomorrow I'm driving out to Capilano College to sign up for the communications course Gil Grogan recommended — might as well brush up on a few skills while waiting to hear from Sanderson, etc. And in the afternoon I'm interviewing a lady who answered my ad for cleaning help. The woman your mother found didn't work out at all; she wanted seventy bucks for six hours' work — robbery -- and said she was uncomfortable working in a house unless the Mister and Missus (that's you, lovey) were out. I explained that I would do my best to be inconspicuous and quiet, but she said she had more jobs than she could handle anyway. Maybe this new woman will fill the bill. She sounded cheerful on the phone, and God knows a little cheer wouldn't hurt. We do need someone to organize things a bit. Our shoes are sticking to the kitchen floor, a most peculiar sensation.

Love,
Chas


P.S. What lentils? I can't find them — probably because I don't know what the hell I'm looking for.


4 Old Town Lane
Ottawa, Ont.
Sept. 18


Dear Chas,

    I love getting letters from you — do you realize that we've been married twenty years and have never written to one another before? I feel as though I'm catching glimpses of a whole new you that's been lurking there all along and that I didn't even suspect. Do you feel that way? Actually it's even a bit scary.

    This is just a quick note to let you know I've found a place. Not grand (understatement), but not dreary either. It was advertised as a bachelor apartment, but it's a cut above that. It has a separate bedroom — the smallest in the Western World, but separate. In it is one double bed — which takes up a lot of room, but I cherish the hope you will visit at least once — and a night table that clears the door by exactly three centimetres. Tucked into the corner by the foot of the bed — with a whole twelve inches of clearance — is a shabby, brown, scarred dresser. Clothes cannot be hung in the bedroom but must go in a tiny closet at the top of the stairs -- I know that sounds unlikely, but bear with me.

    The combination living room-kitchen is small, but there. is a little wooden balcony off it that looks out on a tiny park. Ottawa is full of parks — remember how we noticed that when we came with the kids? Dr. Grey pointed out in his gentle way that I should enjoy them to the fullest, since it's the taxpayers of Canada, not Ottawa, who pay for them.

    In the distance, on the other side of the park, you can see City Hall, and if you were to lean way out over the balcony (only second floor, not too risky), you could see along Sussex Drive. When I mentioned to Austin — Dr. Grey — that the Prime Minister's house is almost within spitting distance, he said he didn't think he'd be able to resist the temptation if he were in my shoes.

    He's actually quite nice. Yesterday I really boobed — changed Jessica's response to a brief on pay equity to conform to what I thought were the regulations. Turns out my source was two years out of date. Jessica slapped the hole in the knee of her jeans and yelled, "Christ, what kinda stuff are they passing off as law in Lotusland?" I really was mortified, felt so stupid I couldn't eat my dinner. This morning I found Austin's copy of the new regulations on my desk and a poem:

These rules are meant to ease the lot Of women outfit hire, And if you say you know them all You just might be a liar.


    Anyway, just because my "pad" is close to the PM's doesn't mean the neighbourhood borders on posh. It doesn't. Do you remember that wonderful market in Ottawa that we took the kids to? Well, there is an area beyond it called Old Town that has a mixture of very modest frame and brick buildings, and some of them are being restored by the National Capital Commission. Mine is in one of the unrestored two-storey frame buildings, within walking distance of Parliament Hill (about twenty minutes) and very close to Rideau Street. So, location couldn't be better.

    Back to the living room. Well, as I say, it's small. The furniture is terrible: a shabby chesterfield that pulls out to make into a bed (maybe one of the kids will visit?) covered in a cheap brown tweed material, a matching chair, an Arborite coffee table, and — unbelievably — a bay window. With cushions and a view! Nice. And, as I said, a glass door leading out to a little wooden balcony that makes me think of Charles de Gaulle. (Don't ask why.) The strangest thing of all is that the stairs from the front door are mine, all mine. They're part of the apartment! On the ground floor is a door, my door, Number 4, and when I unlock it I walk up this long flight of stairs and there, without benefit of further doors, is a small landing with the clothes closet directly in front, and on the right the living room. No arch, no curtain, it's just there. It gives me kind of a vulnerable feeling, their not being shut off like proper stairs, and I expect it will be drafty. (Also expect that I or someone else will tumble down.)

    And that's about it, except for a very small bathroom, which somebody in a psychedelic sixties freakout decorated in purple and pink. Purple tub, matching john, and every inch of counter space and walls brightly enamelled in "passion" pink.

    Oh yes, kitchen is a sink, hot plate, microwave, tiny fridge, and small counter on the stairs side. I know it sounds awful (depends on your point of view; Jessica is loudly scornful -- thinks it elitist), but actually it's nice. The living room has funny little angles, and the bay window and view of the park make it seem a bit homey. Or cosy, at least. I do need a desk — there seems to be some mix-up about my pay, but maybe when I get it I can find something cheap.

    Just glancing over your letter and note with some surprise that you and the children think Vance looked paunchy on TV. Actually he's slimmed down, tells me he's gone back to jogging along the canal every morning.

    About your cleaning-woman problems, did you ever stop to figure out what seventy dollars for six hours' work is per hour? About twelve bucks. Backs up what we keep hearing re the disparity in men's and women's incomes. I'll spare you the sermon that springs trippingly to the tongue and confine myself to pointing out that cleaning women charge at least fifteen bucks an hour these days. That's why we were getting along without One. (I'm not suggesting that you don't need one, love.)

    Am dying to hear what happens re Sanderson et al. Phone when you hear, hang the expense. Wait — I don't have a phone. As soon as they connect it (promised for tomorrow) will call you.

    Oh, I miss the kids! Do you think Greg is being especially difficult? If so, I wonder why. Would it have to do with my departure do you think? I would have thought Mia would be the one to react to that, but gather she loves being the little mother.

    The mattress is lumpy on one side. Would gladly give you the good side if you were here.

Much love,
Jock


P.S. Would you ring Mother and give her my new address? She feels threatened if she can't locate me precisely On a map.


P.P.S. We start the hearings proper next week. We've been going through the written briefs, but now the Commissioners will get a chance to question the groups that submitted them. Vance says I shouldn't hesitate to ask questions, but I'm worried it might seem presumptuous. What do you think?

(Continues ...)

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Reading Group Guide

A CELIBATE SEASON
by Carol Shields & Blanche Howard

 

INTRODUCTION

What happens to a marriage when spouses live apart? This is the experiment undertaken by Jock and Chas over the course of ten months, during which Jock will pursue an internship in a distant city while Chas cares for the children and runs the household. There is nothing extraordinary about this story. Harsh economic realities have forced many families to make difficult compromises just to survive. What is extraordinary is the way the authors of this epistolary novel portray a relationship in jeopardy, imbuing it with the suspense of a mystery and the deep emotion of a love story.

Jock and Chas choose to communicate largely through letters, and their initial concerns about their new relationship center around the absence of sex. But, while the celibacy of their arrangement continues to be an issue for both partners, it soon becomes apparent that Jock and Chas are missing out on much more than sex. As their lives change and take shape over the months, they tackle exciting challenges with mixed success, meet new people, discover new strengths within themselves—in short, they experience a typical almost-year of ups and downs, right and left turns. The difference, of course, is that they have encountered these changes without the benefit of their partner's proximity, and outside the familiar patterns they had established as a family. Would Jock have discovered the depths of her compassion for disadvantaged women, and the thrill of making a difference in their lives, if she had stayed at home? Would Chas have realized his talent for poetry or summoned the courage to start his own business if he had landed a nine-to-five job with an architectural firm? Perhaps, but these new directions would have been undertaken with more deliberation, with both partners voicing their concerns, with more consideration for their repercussions. Families offer support, but they can also interfere with the processes of self-discovery.

Jock and Chas experience all of the delights and many of the limitations presented by an epistolary relationship. Their letters allow them to consider words carefully. They can be charming, sexy, sarcastic, and fearful, but they can also edit out these feelings if they feel the need. Letters offer freedom of expression but also the safety of disguise. There is a formality to a correspondence that forces the writer to articulate feelings without the benefit of a tone of voice, a thoughtful expression, or an affectionate caress. But these concrete sensations that give life and meaning to words are also the elements of a caring relationship. And as Jock and Chas pursue their daily goals thousands of miles apart, they become shadows in each other's lives. Their carefully chosen words are misread or ignored. Their missives cross paths like an argument on tape delay. Even the details of their children's lives are relegated to hastily scribbled postscripts. It is no wonder that their relationship begins to unravel.

In exploring the lives of this loving couple through their correspondence, Blanche Howard and Carol Shields revive a literary form that is practically extinct. Jocks and Chas's letters are a wonderful device with which to dissect a relationship that seems both ordinary and desirable on the outside but which, under stress, ripples with resentment, uncertainty, and mistrust. Woven into the letters along with the ordinary details of daily existence—lentils, sequins, dinner parties, broken furnaces—is the very real threat that their relationship has sustained irreparable damage. Will Chas and Jock's marriage survive this celibate season? Will it be stronger because of it? The answers to these enticing questions are left up to the reader. What is certain is that a relationship cannot be "shut down for a spell, the way we disconnect the pool in the winter or turn off the furnace in summer." Both Chas and Jock are different people from the couple who stared hopefully ahead at a lengthy separation, seeing only the impact it would have on their lovemaking. Little did they know the effect it would have on their lives.

 

ABOUT BLANCHE HOWARD AND CAROL SHIELDS

Blanche Howard is a novelist, playwright, and teller of short stories. Her works include Penelope's Way, Pretty Lady, The Manipulator, The Immortal Soul of Edwin Carlysle and Dance of the Self. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.

Carol Shields is the author of The Stone Diaries, which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Canada's Governor General's Award. Her other novels and short-story collections include The Republic of Love, Happenstance, Swann, The Orange Fish, Various Miracles, The Box Garden, and Small Ceremonies (all available from Penguin). She lives in Winnipeg, Canada.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What makes a marriage? How does Jock and Chas's relationship fit into your definition? How does their marriage change over the course of their ten-month separation?
     
  2. How important is sex to a marriage? What do you think Jocelyn means when she writes (in a letter that is never sent): "I felt known—that strange biblical term. It really does mean something after all." What has Austin's proximity given her that Chas could not?
     
  3. Discuss both incidents of infidelity. What do you think made each spouse stray? How does Jocelyn's experience with Austin differ from Chas's experience with Davina and Sue? Is one more "guilty" than the other? Is it better that these incidents weren't confessed, or would honesty have been a better policy?
     
  4. Do you think Jock and Chas are good parents? What effect does their separation have on their children?
     
  5. At first, Jock and Charles both agree that letter writing will serve them well because of its economy. Later on, Charles says, "Writing these letters to you all year has had a curious effect on me, letting me know, in fact, what I'm thinking." How do these letters inform the writer as well as the recipient?
     
  6. Consider the characteristics and limitations of the epistolary form. What effect does this genre have on the story and what the reader learns about the characters and plot? What happens to the point of view? What are the effects of two first-person narrators? How might this story be different if told through only one first-person narrator? An omniscient narrator?
     
  7. How do Jock and Chas use their correspondence to express their feelings? How are their feelings better served through written, as opposed to oral, communication? Do you think Jock and Chas's relationship would have changed over the course of their separation if they had only communicated with each other via the telephone? Is it easier to ignore someone's written words, or their spoken ones?
     
  8. What sorts of devices do the authors use to move the plot along and give the story its shape? Some things to consider: use of fax, references to telephone conversations, simultaneous letters, letters not sent, dates, etc.
     
  9. Does Jock and Chas's preoccupation with their own achievements and dilemmas seem selfish to you? Do you think they would have pursued their respective challenges had there been no separation?
     
  10. What will become of Jock and Chas's marriage? Has the "celibate season" made it weaker or stronger? How do you think each has changed over the course of ten months?
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