The Box Garden

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Charleen is a divorcee in her mid-thirties, eking out a living as a poet and part-time assistant for an obscure scientific journal. Although she is quick to count her blessings - a son whom she loves, a blossoming relationship with a man, and friends who care about her - Charleen wonders how her life turned out the way it did. Is she a failure? Or is she still struggling to escape the limited world of her childhood? Her search for answers is as exasperating as the meager paycheck she takes to the bank every week....
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Overview

Charleen is a divorcee in her mid-thirties, eking out a living as a poet and part-time assistant for an obscure scientific journal. Although she is quick to count her blessings - a son whom she loves, a blossoming relationship with a man, and friends who care about her - Charleen wonders how her life turned out the way it did. Is she a failure? Or is she still struggling to escape the limited world of her childhood? Her search for answers is as exasperating as the meager paycheck she takes to the bank every week. But when she returns home to attend her mother's wedding, Charleen is caught up in a series of unexpected - and terrifying - events. And in coping with these big and small emergencies, she is forced to come to terms with the life she has led and the decisions she has made.

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Stone Diaries. Charleen, a divorcee eking out a living as a poet and part-time assistant for an obscure scientific journal, returns home to attend her mother's wedding, and is caught up in a series of unexpected--and terrifying--events.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Charleen Forrest, Judith Gill's sister (see Small Ceremonies, above), is obsessive and hyper-romantic, a poet who no longer writes because ``having given away the well of myself, there is nowhere to go''-except inward. Which is why she looks for deeper meaning in nylon slips and train berths. And why, when her lover describes his father's faltering attempt at sex education (``See The Prairie Lovelies-Only Twenty-five Cents''), she imagines his family as imbued with ``a sort of decency which surfaces unconsciously.'' It's also why she pictures her father's massive heart attack as ``a tidal wave of pressure, a blind wall-darkness crushing him as he lay sleeping.'' Today, a doctor would give Charleen Prozac and send her on her not-so-merry way. But in 1977, when Shields wrote her second novel (which, like Small Ceremonies, is making its first U.S. appearance), the more common treatment for such neuroses was to endure. Charleen not only endures but comes out stronger after one especially trying weeklong trip across Canada to attend her mother's wedding when she is confronted with more of her past than she-or the reader-expects. It's the sort of experience that should send her completely over the edge, but Charleen isn't quite as fragile as she seems. In less capable hands she'd be a caricature, her transformation contrived. But Shields makes Charleen and her experiences believable. Even more rewarding, she makes them endearing. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"Her sentences and subjects swerve in a matter of words from the poetic to the colloquial, uniting the dazzling and the ordinary, the domestic and the cosmic."
Joan Barfoot, London Free Press

"A shrewd and skillful storyteller."
Chicago Tribune

"Carol Shields is a name to set beside Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro."
—Anita Brookner

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140251364
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/1996
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.12 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935, Carol Shields moved to Canada at the age of twenty-two, after studying at the University of Exeter in England, and then obtained her M.A. at the University of Ottawa. She started publishing poetry in her thirties, and wrote her first novel, Small Ceremonies, in 1976. Over the next three decades, Shields would become the author of over twenty books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a book of criticism on Susanna Moodie and a biography of Jane Austen. Her work has been translated into twenty-two languages.

In addition to her writing, Carol Shields worked as an academic, teaching at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia and the University of Manitoba. In 1996, she became chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She lived for fifteen years in Winnipeg and often used it as a backdrop to her fiction, perhaps most notably in Republic of Love. Shields also raised five children — a son and four daughters — with her husband Don, and often spoke of juggling early motherhood with her nascent writing career. When asked in one interview whether being a mother changed her as a writer, she replied, “Oh, completely. I couldn’t have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. And my children give me this other window on the world.”

The Stone Diaries, her fictional biography of Daisy Goodwill, a woman who drifts through her life as child, wife, mother and widow, bewildered by her inability to understand any of these roles, received excellent reviews. The book won a Governor General’s Literary Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, bringing Shields an international following. Her novel Swann was made into a film (1996), as was The Republic of Love (2003; directed by Deepa Mehta). Larry’s Party, published in several countries and adapted into a musical stage play, won England’s Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. And Shields’s final novel, Unless, was shortlisted for the Booker, Orange and Giller prizes and the Governor General’s Literary Award, and won the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction.

Shields’s novels are shrewdly observed portrayals of everyday life. Reviewers praised her for exploring such universal themes as loneliness and lost opportunities, though she also celebrated the beauty and small rewards that are so often central to our happiness yet missing from our fiction. In an eloquent afterword to Dropped Threads, Shields says her own experience taught her that life is not a mountain to be climbed, but more like a novel with a series of chapters.

Carol Shields was always passionate about biography, both in her writing and her reading, and in 2001 she published a biography of Jane Austen. For Shields, Austen was among the greatest of novelists and served as a model: “Jane Austen has figured out the strategies of fiction for us and made them plain.” In 2002, Jane Austen won the coveted Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. A similar biographical impulse lay behind the two Dropped Threads anthologies Carol Shields edited with Marjorie Anderson; their contributors were encouraged to write about those experiences that women are normally not able to talk about. “Our feeling was that women are so busy protecting themselves and other people that they still feel they have to keep quiet about some subjects,” Shields explained in an interview.

Shields spoke often of redeeming the lives of people by recording them in her own works, “especially that group of women who came between the two great women's movements…. I think those women’s lives were often thought of as worthless because they only kept house and played bridge. But I think they had value.”

In 1998, Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer. Speaking on her illness, Shields once said, “It’s made me value time in a way that I suppose I hadn’t before. I’m spending my time listening, listening to what's going around, what's happening around me instead of trying to get it all down.” In 2000, Shields and her husband Don moved from Winnipeg to Victoria, where they lived until her passing on July 16, 2003, from complications of breast cancer, at age 68.

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Foreword

1. Carol Shields spoke of becoming a writer because there weren’t enough books that examined women’s friendships and women’s inner lives — or, as she put it, “the kind of book I wanted to read but couldn’t find.” In what ways does Shields’s fiction bring the lives of women to the surface, or into our understanding? What sorts of female experiences does she illuminate?

2. In her novels and stories, Shields often experiments with using different voices. The Stone Diaries shifts between first-, second-, and third-person narrative; one section of Larry’s Party is recorded almost entirely in dialogue; Happenstance is a novel in two parts, one narrated by the husband, one by the wife; the stories in Various Miracles come from a wide variety of narrative standpoints. Discuss point-of-view in Shields’s works, and the importance of telling one’s own stories — as characters or in real life. Also, what is the role of the writer in telling other people’s stories for them?

3. Though she’s lauded as a writer who brought the lives of ordinary people to the page and made them extraordinary, Carol Shields took some exception to the idea in one interview: “I have never known what ‘ordinary’ people means! I don’t think I quite believe in the concept…. There’s no one who isn’t complicated, who doesn’t have areas of cowardice or courage, who isn’t incapable of some things and capable of great acts. I think everyone has that capability. Either we’re all ordinary or else none of us is ordinary.” Discuss therole of ordinary life in Shields’s fiction. How do her above views come across in her writing? Is there a respect for the everyday that you don’t see in works by other writers?

4. Shields once commented that she’d often set up the structure of a novel, determining such elements as how many chapters there would be, and how long they’d be, before she even set out to write. “I need that kind of structure,” she explained. “[S]ometimes I change it. But mostly I don’t.… I love structures, and I love making new structures for novels.” Discuss the overall structures of different novels and how they relate to the content. For example, does Larry Weller’s love of garden mazes say anything about the twenty years of his life covered by Larry’s Party? What meaning can be found in the one-word chapter titles of Unless? How does Shields use, or even undermine, the biography format in The Stone Diaries?

5. “I'm concerned about the unknowability of other people,” Shields once said. “That's why I love biography and the idea of the human life told or shown. Of course, this is why I love novels, too. In novels, you get to hear how people are thinking. That’s why I read fiction.” How does Shields expose and often celebrate the inner lives of her characters? Can you find examples of characters who aren’t really known to those around them? How do their relationships suffer, or thrive, or even just survive, in the face of such distance?

6. How does what you know about Carol Shields as a person affect your reading of her books? Are you able to separate the author from her work? Do you feel the need to? What parallels can you draw between her approach to life and those of her characters? For instance, most of her main characters are women at mid-life, and many of her characters are writers or work in other areas of book publishing (translators, editors, etc.).

7. In interviews about Larry’s Party, Carol Shields commented more than once that men were “the ultimate mystery” to her. Discuss the male characters in Shields’s fiction — both those in prominent roles, like Larry Weller in Larry’s Party or Tom Avery in The Republic of Love, and the many husbands and lovers that seem to populate the sidelines of other stories and novels. How successfully does Shields portray the world of men in her work? Are there common characteristics you can trace between books? Are some of her male characters defined by the women they love? Or is it more often the other way around?

8. Many of Carol Shields’s works explore the ways individuals interact with their communities. Some characters are defined by their loneliness, while others struggle with their responsibilities to the people around them, whether it’s their family or a larger group. Discuss the roles of family and community in Shields’s fiction.

9. Carol Shields has always been well-known for her love of language, and its slipperiness. In what ways does her writing call attention to itself as writing? Are there particular stories or novels that you find playful? Or linguistically complex?

10. Author and literary journalist James Atlas, who edited the series for which Shields wrote her Austen biography, once said about Carol Shields, “she is our Jane Austen.” Compare Shields’s fiction to that of Austen — are there common themes or techniques? What other major authors would you compare Shields to, and why? Where does her work fit into our literary canon?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Carol Shields spoke of becoming a writer because there weren’t enough books that examined women’s friendships and women’s inner lives — or, as she put it, “the kind of book I wanted to read but couldn’t find.” In what ways does Shields’s fiction bring the lives of women to the surface, or into our understanding? What sorts of female experiences does she illuminate?

2. In her novels and stories, Shields often experiments with using different voices. The Stone Diaries shifts between first-, second-, and third-person narrative; one section of Larry’s Party is recorded almost entirely in dialogue; Happenstance is a novel in two parts, one narrated by the husband, one by the wife; the stories in Various Miracles come from a wide variety of narrative standpoints. Discuss point-of-view in Shields’s works, and the importance of telling one’s own stories — as characters or in real life. Also, what is the role of the writer in telling other people’s stories for them?

3. Though she’s lauded as a writer who brought the lives of ordinary people to the page and made them extraordinary, Carol Shields took some exception to the idea in one interview: “I have never known what ‘ordinary’ people means! I don’t think I quite believe in the concept…. There’s no one who isn’t complicated, who doesn’t have areas of cowardice or courage, who isn’t incapable of some things and capable of great acts. I think everyone has that capability. Either we’re all ordinary or else none of us is ordinary.” Discuss the role of ordinary life in Shields’s fiction. How do her above views come across in her writing? Is there a respect for the everyday that you don’t see in works by other writers?

4. Shields once commented that she’d often set up the structure of a novel, determining such elements as how many chapters there would be, and how long they’d be, before she even set out to write. “I need that kind of structure,” she explained. “[S]ometimes I change it. But mostly I don’t.… I love structures, and I love making new structures for novels.” Discuss the overall structures of different novels and how they relate to the content. For example, does Larry Weller’s love of garden mazes say anything about the twenty years of his life covered by Larry’s Party? What meaning can be found in the one-word chapter titles of Unless? How does Shields use, or even undermine, the biography format in The Stone Diaries?

5. “I'm concerned about the unknowability of other people,” Shields once said. “That's why I love biography and the idea of the human life told or shown. Of course, this is why I love novels, too. In novels, you get to hear how people are thinking. That’s why I read fiction.” How does Shields expose and often celebrate the inner lives of her characters? Can you find examples of characters who aren’t really known to those around them? How do their relationships suffer, or thrive, or even just survive, in the face of such distance?

6. How does what you know about Carol Shields as a person affect your reading of her books? Are you able to separate the author from her work? Do you feel the need to? What parallels can you draw between her approach to life and those of her characters? For instance, most of her main characters are women at mid-life, and many of her characters are writers or work in other areas of book publishing (translators, editors, etc.).

7. In interviews about Larry’s Party, Carol Shields commented more than once that men were “the ultimate mystery” to her. Discuss the male characters in Shields’s fiction — both those in prominent roles, like Larry Weller in Larry’s Party or Tom Avery in The Republic of Love, and the many husbands and lovers that seem to populate the sidelines of other stories and novels. How successfully does Shields portray the world of men in her work? Are there common characteristics you can trace between books? Are some of her male characters defined by the women they love? Or is it more often the other way around?

8. Many of Carol Shields’s works explore the ways individuals interact with their communities. Some characters are defined by their loneliness, while others struggle with their responsibilities to the people around them, whether it’s their family or a larger group. Discuss the roles of family and community in Shields’s fiction.

9. Carol Shields has always been well-known for her love of language, and its slipperiness. In what ways does her writing call attention to itself as writing? Are there particular stories or novels that you find playful? Or linguistically complex?

10. Author and literary journalist James Atlas, who edited the series for which Shields wrote her Austen biography, once said about Carol Shields, “she is our Jane Austen.” Compare Shields’s fiction to that of Austen — are there common themes or techniques? What other major authors would you compare Shields to, and why? Where does her work fit into our literary canon?

Read More Show Less

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