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Larry Weller, the son of English immigrants, is brought to Winnipeg while still in his mother's womb. He grows up to become a floral arranger and landscape gardener. As the story opens in 1977, Larry is 26, living at home and dating Dorrie, whom he eventually marries. The book progresses episodically across the next 20 years, each chapter self-contained enough to work as an independent story but connected to the ones that precede and follow it by the narrative of Larry's life, which runs through them like the string holding together a necklace of pearls. Thus, while the focus of each chapter is minuscule—a tweed jacket picked up by mistake in a restaurant, for example, or a trip to the airport to meet a small child—the cumulative effect is one of exceptional clarity and depth of emotion, since the larger environment that surrounds ordinary daily routines becomes better defined and more obvious as the story progresses. The unhappy circumstances that led to the Wellers' emigration, the failure of Larry's marriage to Dorrie, the trials of his second marriage, and the development of his career as a landscaper are all described through flashback. Each part is carefully related to the central metaphor of the garden mazes that Larry becomes expert at designing. The climactic chapter, in which the characters of Larry's labyrinthine and exceedingly complicated life come together at a party, is a blatantly contrived device—but successful in spite of its transparency.
Very fine and real: Shields writes with the rare self- assurance of one who from the first knows where her characters are going and what will become of them once they arrive, and—rarer still—manages not to bend them out of shape along the way.
Fifteen Minutes in the Life of Larry Weller
By mistake Larry Weller took someone else’s Harris tweed jacket instead of his own, and it wasn't until he jammed his hand in the pocket that he knew something was wrong.
His hand was traveling straight into a silky void. His five fingers pushed down, looking for the balled-up Kleenex from his own familiar worn-out pocket, the nickels and dimes, the ticket receipts from all the movies he and Dorrie had been seeing lately. Also those hard little bits of lint, like meteor grip, that never seem to lose themselves once they've worked into the seams.
This pocket — today’s pocket — was different. Clean, a slippery valley. The stitches he touched at the bottom weren't his stitches. His fingertips glided now on a sweet little sea of lining. He grabbed for the buttons. Leather, the real thing. And something else — the sleeves were a good half inch longer than they should have been.
This jacket was twice the value of his own. The texture, the seams. You could see it got sent all the time to the cleaners. Another thing, you could tell by the way the shoulders sprang out that this jacket got parked on a thick wooden hanger at night. Above a row of polished shoes. Refilling its tweedy warp and woof with oxygenated air.
He should have run back to the coffee shop to see if his own jacket was still scrunched there on the back of his chair, but it was already quarter to six, and Dorrie was expecting him at six sharp, and it was rush hour and he wasn't anywhere near the bus stop.
And — the thought came to him — what’s the point? Ajacket’s a jacket. A person who patronized a place like Café Capri is almost asking to get his jacket copped. This way all that’s happened is a kind of exchange.
Forget the bus, he decided. He'd walk. He'd stroll. In his hot new Harris tweed apparel. He'd push his shoulders along, letting them roll loose in their sockets. Forward with the right shoulder, bam, then the left shoulder coming up from behind. He'd let his arms swing wide. Fan his fingers out. Here comes the Big Guy, watch out for the Big Guy.
The sleeves rubbed light across the back of his hands, scratchy but not too scratchy.
And then he saw that the cuff buttons were leather too, a smaller-size version of the main buttons, but the same design, a sort of cross-pattern like a pecan pit cut in quarters, only the slices overlapped this little bit. You could feel the raised design with you finger, the way the four quadrants of leather crossed over and over each other, their edges cut wavy on the inside margin. These waves intersected in the middle, dived down there in a dark center and disappeared. A black hole in the button universe. Zero.
Quadrant was a word Larry hadn't even thought of for about ten years, not since geometry class, grade eleven.
The color of the jacket was mixed shades of brown, a strong background of freckled tobacco tones with subtle orange flecks. Very subtle. No one would say: hey, here comes this person with orange flecks distributed across his jacket. You'd have to be an inch away before you took in those flecks.
Orange wasn't Larry’s favorite color, at least not in the clothing line. He remembered He'd had orange swim trunks back in high school, MacDonald Secondary, probably about two sizes too big, since he was always worrying at that time in his life about his bulge showing, which was exactly the opposite of most guys, who made a big point of showing what they had. Modesty ran in his family, his mum, his dad, his sister, Midge, and once modesty gets into your veins you're stuck with it. Dorrie, on the other hand, doesn't even shut the bathroom door when she’s in there, going. A different kind of family altogether.
He'd had orange socks once too, neon orange. That didn't last too long. Pretty soon he was back to white socks. Sports socks. You got a choice between a red stripe around the top, a blue stripe, or no stripe at all. Even geeks like Larry and his friend Bill Herschel, who didn't go in for sports, they still wore those thick cotton sports socks every single day. You bought them three in a pack and they lasted about a week before they fell into holes. You always thought, hey, what a bargain, three pairs of socks at this fantastic price!
White socks went on for a long time in Larry’s life. A whole era.
Usually he didn't button a jacket, but it just came to him as he was walking along that he wanted to do up one of those leather buttons, the middle one. It felt good, not too tight over the gut. The guy must be about his own size, 40 medium, which is lucky for him. If, for example, He'd picked up Larry’s old jacket, he could throw it in the garbage tomorrow, but at least he wasn't walking around Winnipeg with just his shirt on his back. The nights got cool this time of year. Rain was forecast too.
A lot of people don't know that Harris tweed is virtually waterproof. You'd think cloth this thick and woolly would soak up water like a sponge, but, in actual fact, rain slides right off the surface. This was explained to Larry by a knowledgeable old guy who worked in menswear at Hector’s. That would be, what, nine, ten years ago, before Hector’s went out of business. Larry could tell that this wasn't just a sales pitch. The guy — he wore a lapel button that said “Salesman of the Year” — talked about how the sheep they've got over there are covered with special long oily hair that repels water. This made sense to Larry, a sheep standing out in the rain day and night. That was his protection.
Dorrie kept wanting him to buy a khaki trenchcoat, but he doesn't need one, not with his Harris tweed. You don't want bulk when you're walking along. He walks a lot. It’s when he does his thinking. He hums his thoughts out on the air like music; they've got a disco beat; My name is Larry Weller. I'm a floral designer, twenty-six years old, and I'm walking down Notre Dame Avenue, in the city of Winnipeg, in the country of Canada, in the month of April, in the year 1977, and I'm thinking hard. About being hungry, about being late, about having sex later on tonight. About how great I feel in this other guy’s Harris tweed jacket.
MEET LARRY WELLER
What is this mighty labyrinth—the earth,
But a wild maze the moment of our birth?
("Reflections on Walking in the Maze at Hampton Court," British Magazine, 1747)
Meet Larry Weller. Born in 1950 to working class parents, he's an ordinary guy. His life is punctuated by unremarkable events: marriage, the birth of a child, divorce, job changes, illness, and the death of his parents. Even the pockets of his own tweed jacket are stuffed with leftovers from his ordinary life: nickels, dimes, old movie stubs, and a gathering of gritty little bits of lint collected in the seams. The only extraordinary thing about Larry Weller is that he is the subject of Larry's Party, the new novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields that celebrates the twisting—and often chaotic—path of his life.
"By mistake, Larry Weller took someone else's Harris tweed jacket instead of his own, and it wasn't till he jammed his hand in the pocket that he knew something was wrong."
Larry's life unfolds before him as a series of mistakes and coincidences. When Red River College sends him a brochure for Flower Design, instead of the requested Furnace Repair, Larry learns how to arrange flowers for a living. When his date to a Halloween party wears an unappealing pirate costume, Larry's eye wanders and falls upon a cute Martian named Dorrie. A year later, Dorrie accidentally gets pregnant and becomes the first Mrs. Larry Weller. Perhaps the most significant coincidence occurs on their honeymoon in England, where Larry allows himself to get lost in the Hampton Court garden maze. While halfheartedly navigating his way through the lush green labyrinth, Larry realizes that he revels in taking wrong turns, that "getting lost, and then found, seemed the whole point." Mazes become not only Larry's passion and life's work, but also a mirror for Carol Shields's winding, looping narrative and the episodic structure of Larry's Party.
Carol Shields knows that life's breathless moments of clarity arise unexpectedly, and that we all must cull wisdom—like Larry—from "sideways comments over lemon meringue pie, sudden bursts of comprehension or weird parallels that come curling out of the radio, out of a movie, off the pages of a newspaper, out of a joke." Larry's odyssey through life—and the reader's journey through this novel—is random yet patterned.
At the end of the novel, Larry gathers all of his friends and lovers together for a party. Over roasted lamb and fine wine they banter about the meaning of life. Life, they say, is the ultimate maze, and a maze is "our thumbprint on the planet." One guest observes that "at the center of the maze there's an encounter with oneself...a sense of rebirth." Ah...yes, Carol Shields seems to be saying. In spite of fate's marvelously unpredictable inner compass, people often seem to get to the right place, which is the center of the self.
The youngest of three children, Carol Shields was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935. She studied at Hanover College, the University of Exeter in England, and the University of Ottawa, where she received her M.A.
In 1957, she married Donald Hugh Shields, a professor of Civil Engineering, and moved to Canada. She has lived there ever since. In addition to raising five children, all now grown, Shields has worked as a professor at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Manitoba. She lives in Winnipeg, where she is the Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg.
Shields is the author of several novels and short-story collections, including The Orange Fish, Swann, Various Miracles, Happenstance, and The Republic of Love. Her books have won a Canada Council Major Award, National Magazine Awards, the Canadian Author's Award, and a CBC short story award. In 1995, Shields received the Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries. The Stone Diaries also won the National Book Critics' Circle Award, Canada's Governor General Award, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and was named a Notable Book by The New York Times Book Review and one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly. Most recently, Shields received the United Kingdom's Orange Prize for Fiction for Larry's Party
Many people have called Larry Weller the "male counterpart" to Daisy Goodwill, the character in The Stone Diaries. Is that what you were trying to accomplish? Did you think about Daisy at all when you were writing about Larry?
I don't think of Larry as a male counterpart to Daisy Goodwill. The book seemed to me a separate endeavor. For one thing, [Larry's Party] surveys a slice of a life, not a whole life. I chose to look at Larry between the ages of 27 and 47, since it is during this period, I think, that most of our life choices are made. My idea was to lead him to "the center of the maze," a resting place in his life, but not the final resting place. Of course, I thought of Daisy as I wrote about this very ordinary man. It seems I am always thinking about gender and how the "accident" of gender alters our behavior and our expectations.
I've read you believe that coincidences are at the heart of what makes the universe go round. With Larry's Party, did you set out to write a novel that brought this theory into focus? Has coincidence played a significant part in your own life?
I am deeply interested in synchronicity and, in fact, all forms of coincidence. In Larry's life, accident plays a major role, and he is the sort of person who allows this to happen. He is, in a sense, someone who lets life happen to him, but then I believe most of us fall into that particular camp. I've heard people say that we write our own script, but I've never been able to believe it. The forces of the world are too many and too complex to permit us this privilege. I suppose my life is as full of historical accident as anyone else's. I was born in the depression, spent a wartime childhood, married in the fifties. All these kinds of things must color in the squares of an individual life.
Why did you write Larry's Party in the third person, and not first person?
Except for my first two novels (Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden), I've mostly written in the third person. Each position permits a writer certain liberties and imposes a balancing set of restrictions, but I find more and more that third person allows me to enter the narratives of people whose lives are very different from my own.
Language and communication are tremendously important to Larry. In fact, he all but says that his lack of vocabulary was a key factor in the breakup of his first marriage. Does a large, articulate vocabulary heighten the experiences of life? What about unspoken or unwritten communication?
I've always sensed that language is the great liberator. The fitting phrase, the precise word—these permit us to be more nearly ourselves. Like everyone else, though, I sometimes fear there is too much language pouring down on us, an overdose of communication that deadens us to private reflection.
Are there times that you find yourself struggling to articulate a particular sensation or feeling? Do you think that there is a word for every stop on the entire spectrum of human emotion?
I struggle all the time, and have come to understand that certain human responses leak around the edges of language. Larry Weller knows this too, when he wonders whether language has evolved to the point where it can be fully expressive. I suppose writers use the nuances of tone when language itself fails us, or the useful tricks of metaphor.
How did the narrative order of Larry's Party unfold? Did you know from the beginning that his journey through life would be a circular one?
I love to create structures for novels, and I very early saw a double structure in Larry's Party. There was the ongoing chronological framework, in which I cut into his life every year or two to see what was going on. And then there was what I call a CAT scan structure in which I slice transversely into an aspect of his life—his folks, his work, his friends. This second structure was particularly useful to me since I was struck by the fact that men, on the whole, tend to compartmentalize their lives more than most women do.
You've said, "I've learnt that men don't often ask questions; women ask questions and men supply information." In Larry's Party, Larry seems to be asking the questions, while the women he surrounds himself with answer them. Is Larry an exceptional case or are you making more general claims about male/female relationships?
Perhaps Larry is more searching than most men. Certainly he asks the major existential questions: How did I get here? Is this all there is? But I'm not sure he asks the smaller and necessary questions. He doesn't probe his mother's religious impulses, nor ask his sister if she is happy. And he scarcely communicates with the young Dorrie at all.
How different do you think the men and women coming of age today are from those that grew up in the fifties? Do you think that our roles in relationships are "wired" in such a way that no matter what generation, certain elements of our relationships will ultimately remain the same? Do you believe that men and women are "wired" differently?
We went through an interesting period in the seventies when we optimistically believed that given the same kind of conditioning, men and women would grow increasingly alike in their personalities. This seems not to have happened; I can only suppose that our differences are Darwinian in nature and that they are likely to remain differences. The best we can do, perhaps, is modify extremes and cultivate sensitivity.
Your previous novel, The Stone Diaries, won the Pulitzer prize. Did you feel exceptionally pressured to write a book that would match your prior success?
Oddly, I felt no pressure at all after winning the Pulitzer. Certainly I was not badgered by my publishers. I've never believed that writers must "top" themselves with each new book. A creative life doesn't work that way, thank heavens. Most of us write out of where we are at the moment and we write the very best book we're capable of.
You've written a novel about the typical twentieth-century woman, Daisy Goodwill. You've written a novel about the typical twentieth-century man, Larry Weller. What is next?
I suppose I'll continue to write about certain unresolved questions: the question of art and who makes it, the problems and puzzles of gender, and the arc of a human life which is, in the end, the only plot that interests me.
"Beguiling...a work of radiance...Larry's Party confirms Shields's preeminent position among contemporary novelists." —The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Using her fierce gift for observation, a natural storytelling talent and a gently comic charm, [Shields] gives us a nicely tactile sense of Larry's ordinary life." —The New York Times
"Shields captures an unremarkable man in a remarkable light." —Time
"[Shields] has a knack for turning the ordinary into the extraordinary....Arrestingly real." —New York Daily News
"Larry's Party showcases the elegant phrasing and evocative imagery that render her work a rare treat." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Triumphant." —Publishers Weekly
Posted September 6, 2001
This book started out EXTREMELY boring (pages and pages about a jacket that larry is wearing).....and stayed that way to the last page! There was NOTHING dramatic, exciting or climactic about the book whatsoever! Sure, tell me a story about an average Joe, but can you give me some sadness or laughter or SOMETHING to make it worth reading? Larry's first wife hires a bulldozer to destroy his precious hedge maze in the backyard....the chapter ends and in the next chapter, he's divorced. WHAT HAPPENED?? WHAT WAS SAID BETWEEN HUSBAND AND WIFE?? Give me something to work with here!!! After the first chapter, i didn't want to read anymore, but i wanted to give it a chance. I considered tossing it out when i was half way through, but I forced myself to finish it, i shouldn't have! This book makes you think that the author was on a deadline to produce another book for her publisher and could come up with nothing to write about! So that's what she did, she wrote a book about........NOTHING!
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Posted July 26, 2013
Posted February 19, 2003
Carol Shields is a great writer, and her portrayal here of a the man Larry Weller, who's something of a loser, is insightful. It is true that the story is not filled with action and tension on every page, or even every other page, but I found that refreshing- to follow this man through his life, see how he handled the next crisis that came up, see if he would ever figure out why he was such a loser. I think Shields did an excellant job of capturing the ho-hum-ness of life that we all have to deal with from time to time, some more than others. I think this book is an excellant study on character development, and Ms.Shields is still, in my book, one of the best writers of our time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 13, 2010
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