#100WomenNovelists: Carol Shields

Blog post 23: Larry’s Party (1997)

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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 Party’ asks the question: what’s it like being a man at the end of the 20th century? Carol Shields spends the course of the novel trying to answer this question being asked, mainly unknowingly, by one ‘ordinary’ man, Larry Weller.

Larry Weller is born in 1950 in Winnipeg, Canada, to English parents, and we follow his reminiscences over the first 46 years of his life, the constant struggle he has with himself to construct his place in the world, and his yearning to find that most elusive of states: happiness.

The last half of the 20th century saw great changes in gender roles, social conventions, fashion, work, ideals, family life etc. and the novel is structured in such a way as to examine these issues separately – Larry’s Work, Larry’s Love, Larry’s Folks, Larry’s Penis, etc. – and yet everything is also entwined, as it is for any human being.

Much of Larry’s life happens by accident – after high school, he goes to college on a floristry course, basically because he was sent the floristry leaflet rather than the furnace mending one. He gets his girlfriend pregnant and they have to get married. He finds his passion on honeymoon in Hampton Court maze and in time becomes a world-renowned maze-maker. Shields doubles back and repeats herself in each section, as if she is leading us, the reader, through a maze. Which is the overarching image of the novel.

The whole thing about mazes is that they make perfect sense only when you look down on them from above.

Larry’s Party, the final chapter, is one of the best set pieces I have read. It’s almost a play, being nearly all dialogue, but the novel has been leading us in various directions and back tracks to this beautifully constructed end. Just like one of Larry’s beloved mazes.

Larry stumbles through life, knowing that he wants to be a good friend, a good son, a good husband, a good father, but he struggles to really live this life of his. Instead, it’s almost as if he’s an observer of it. But by the end, by the time of the dinner party that he and his girlfriend throw, Larry, who is always searching for more, maybe finally realises that he has enough.

Larry’s is a thoroughly convincing male voice, especially when he ruminates about sex. The writing is not cliched. It’s nuanced and complex and yet simple too. Shield wrote an incredible book. There are so many clever connections that you only make on a further reading of this novel. Like a maze, you can enjoy it in a different way each time. Brilliant.

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