Carol Shields is considered one of Canada's best writers. She died last year and there was a lot of press about her life and work. I heard most of her novel Larry's Party read on CBC and quite enjoyed it. I checked out what they had at the Library and decided upon this one because it was such a neat concept. Happenstance is actually two books, back to back (physically, you have to flip the book over to start the other story). Together, it is about a week in the life of a married couple. One book is the husband's story and the other is the wife's story. So it's looking at the relationship through the two different perspectives.
The couple in question are a middle-class couple in suburban Chicago in the early 80s. He is a professional historian at a think tank and she is a housewife who has recently become quite succesful at quiltmaking, to the point where she is going to a quiltmaker's convention in Philadelphia. The story begins with her getting ready to leave and ends when she gets back.
I started with the wife's story, because it was the real "front" of the book. It was enjoyable, if a bit neurotic. Carol Shields goes deeply into the thoughts of the wife and it was richly imagined. The wife is a lifetime housewife who is just starting to branch out with her quilting. It's not that she had no identity before. On the contrary, she is portrayed as a solid and independent individual, despite her social role. It's more the unfolding of her consciousness and mind as she becomes more creative and finds herself alone in a new social milieu. It's engrossing to watch the story unfold, both what is happening around her at the convention (which is quite fun, actually; the quiltmakers are a pretty rowdy bunch) and inside of her.
After finishing the wife's story, I was quite psyched to see the husband's take on things. Since they are physically apart for most of the book, you don't actually get a play-by-play analysis of the same situation seen through the two sets of eyes. Rather, you get to see the husband as he sees himself, compared with how the wife sees him and you get to see how the husband sees the wife, now that you have a feel for her. The differences in the way they see each other is actually quite large. Their entire worldviews are different. But by the end, you get the feeling that people can be very, very different and not even really know each other in a certain sense and yet still be deeply linked and extremely important for one another.
The husband, though, comes off as much more neurotic and self-conscious than the wife. He's constantly worried about every stupid little social situation. At first, because the wife is so stressed about her flight, you think she's the worry-wart, but when you read his story and how every stupid little thing freaks him out, you kind of find him a bit of a loser. I feel that Shields doesn't really understand men, unless this is how men were in the 80s (and they were pretty lame then, it's true). She goes to great lengths to suggest that men don't keep many long-term friends, while women do. She also tries to get us to believe that this guy has only ever fantasized about his wife. Not. Finally, there is a really jarring scene where the guy comes home and the 3rd quarter of a football game that he really wanted to watch is underway. He heats up some soup from a can and suddenly the game is almost over! He only gets to watch the final goal-line touchdown attempt. A quarter and a half in four minutes. Not even with a Tivo. It's clear that Shields had no idea about a football game. And she describes it from his perspective like it's all just a jumble of arms and legs. A goal-line stand may seem confusing to someone who has never watched football, but if the guy was a fan, he would have known what was going on. Her editor must have been a woman also. She went too far, flew too close to the sun. If you're going to try and think like a man, don't get into the sports unless you know what you're doing. It'd be like me trying to write about a woman picking out jewelry. I wouldn't dare try.
Still, it's a big challenge to write the opposite sex, especially if you are going deep into their thoughts. This is a pretty impressive book and has some good stuff in it. For my personal taste, there was just way too much worrying about stuff and obsessing over things. I'll try some of her later books at some point, but I need a little bit of good old-fashioned narrative first.