Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1998, ‘Larry’s Party’ is the third book I have read by Carol Shields. I read ‘Unless’ a couple of years ago but didn’t love it, didn’t review it and now can’t really remember anything about it. However, I really enjoyed The Stone Diaries back in 2013 and ‘Larry’s Party’ is very similar in many ways – both novels are fictional biographies of “ordinary” people who live quiet yet complex lives. While ‘The Stone Diaries’ spans nearly the whole 20th century, ‘Larry’s Party’ is slightly more focused in scope covering a mere two decades of the life of Laurence “Larry” J. Weller, born in 1950 in Winnipeg to English immigrant parents.
The structure unfolds both chronologically (to an extent) and thematically exploring the minutiae of Larry’s life at annual intervals from 1977 when he is dating his soon-to-be first wife Dorrie until 1997 when he throws the party referred to in the title. Each self-contained chapter looks at a different aspect of Larry’s life, a mix of the most important things in his life and a couple of the more trivial: his health, career, work, friends, clothes, name, two marriages, son, parents and so on. These themes and relationships continue to overlap and the power of the novel lies in the cumulative effect of how Shields builds a portrait of Larry as an “everyman” character, not especially loveable or fascinating company, but certainly recognisable in his strengths and flaws.
Starting out as a florist, Larry later becomes a landscape designer by trade. His obsession with mazes begins when he visits Hampton Court Palace while on his honeymoon touring England with Dorrie. It’s a fitting analogy for the general trajectory of life: the correct path is clear when seen from above, but when you’re actually in the middle of it, it’s all too easy to get lost or stuck at lots of dead ends with no idea how to find a way out.
The final chapter sees Larry throw the long-awaited party a year after he suffers a health scare. It is a fairly unsubtle yet very compelling set-piece which brings together several of the most important people in his life. The dialogue is particularly well written, perfectly capturing how people talk over or at each other at dinner parties with topics of conversation ranging from the banal to the profound. Eventually, Larry is asked the central question of the novel: “What’s it like being a man these days?” Shields doesn’t provide any neat or definitive answers but she is able to bring out the extraordinary in ordinary events with great effect. If anyone has any recommendations for her other novels, I would love to hear them.