Carol Shields’ The Box Garden (1977)


So much good women’s fiction from 1977, from Margaret Atwood’s Dancing Girls to Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

But I reread Carol Shields’ Unless last year and I wanted to reread another of hers.

Enter, The Box Garden.

A book I first read twenty years after its original publication. And that was twenty-one years ago.

Which is a good number of years.

Enough that I wondered whether it would hold up.

It does.

Carol Shields’ first two novels consider two siblings: Charleen and Judith. Just Like Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka stories about sisters Rachel and Stacey (A Jest of God and The Fire-Dwellers).

In The Box Garden, Charleen Forrest (cue jokes about forests and trees and perspective) is travelling to Toronto to attend a wedding, her septuagenarian mother’s wedding. (Judith’s mother, too: Judith, from Small Ceremonies.)

The event prompts Charleen to think about her failed marriage and fledgling relationship with Eugene.

And, once she returns to her childhood home, to think about her parents’ relationship too, and about how their expectations of marriage and home life have influenced her own expectations.

It’s all very civilized. But also very uncomfortable. Restrained and awkward. A quiet and immersive tension.

“For an obsession such as the one which ruled my mother’s life could only have existed to fill a terrible hurting void; it is the void one must not mention, for, who knows, it may still exist just below the uneasy quaking surface. Quicksand. So easy to get sucked under. Better to walk carefully, to say nothing.”

Charleen is so caught in this net of half-living, that even the smallest motions create waves. And she has already dealt a serious blow to the equilibrium in bringing Eugene with her on the trip.

The fact that she did not tell her mother in advance reveals just how much goes unsaid in this family. And not just what is unsaid. But what one must preserve in unsaid-ness.

There really is no question of breaking a silence. Simply acknowledging the silence is too risky. Perimeters are guarded and buffered.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that there is no question of Charleen and Eugene sharing a room. That would not do.

It’s not that they aren’t married (although that’s a situation better preserved in silence as well).

No, it’s not that. Because Charleen’s sister, Judith, and her husband, Martin, sleep in separate rooms too.

That’s right: two grown men in their forties are bunking in together, to avoid upsetting their partners’ mother.

(And, I’m sorry, Charleen, because I know your feelings were hurt when Martin laughed, but when you thought his idea of altering the sleeping arrangements during the night was an invitation to a threesome, rather than partners reuniting, well, you had me laughing out loud too. It still makes me giggle, days later.)

The borders are carefully drawn and maintained. Even in conversation? Especially in conversation. “We talk in careful, mutually drawn circles.”

But the girls are not unsympathetic, not unaware. They understand that their mother’s world changed too quickly for her, that remaining motionless was her coping mechanism. Their silences transformed into borders which press their relationships into thin but unbroken lines.

“Our mother alone had been cursed by strange daughters. Judith with her boisterous disturbing honesty, bookish and careless, and I with my now fatherless child, my unprecedented divorce, my books of poetry. The neighbours’ children hadn’t dismayed and defeated and failed their mothers.”

But the source of dismay and defeat remains a blur. One which has expanded to include the younger women as well. It seeps into the cracks, threatens to overwhelm.

“Happiness. Such a word, such a crude balloon of a word, such a flapping, stretched, unsightly female bladder of a word, how worn, how slack, how almost empty.”

There are salves, however. Later relationships offer some hope and promise (the sisters’ observations of their mother’s fiancee bears this out too). And, for Charleen, there is respite in writing poetry:

“…I discovered that I could bury in my writing the greater part of my pain and humiliation. The usefulness of poetry was revealed to me; all those poets had been telling the truth after all; anguish could be scooped up and dealt with.”

Readers view Charleen as a worker and a writer, a mother and a daughter, a lover and a traveller, a sister and a companion, so although The Box Garden is set in another time, the themes are timeless.

Thanks to Karen and Simon for hosting this event: a good reading year!



  1. Kat May 3, 2018 at 11:37 am - Reply

    What a fun review! I do love Carol Shields and I must go back to this one. Hilarious about the threesome mistake!

    • Buried In Print May 8, 2018 at 9:35 am - Reply

      Carol Shields really does capture characters so skillfully that weeks later I still feel a little guilty giggling over this (because she was so hurt by Martin’s laughter) but it’s also STILL funny!

  2. Simon T April 20, 2018 at 7:42 am - Reply

    Sounds like a success! Thanks for joining in 🙂

  3. Judith April 19, 2018 at 5:42 pm - Reply

    Within the past month I bought The Box Garden for my Nook, at a very reduced price. So interesting to read your thoughts. Another 1977 title–Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner.
    Too bad I never find out about these readalongs until people are commenting all over. Sigh.

    • Buried In Print April 24, 2018 at 3:44 pm - Reply

      I remember gobbling up Looking for Mr Goodbar too! I’ve been in that spot too – feeling like I’m learning about the events with little time to plan to participate – but subscribing to more feeds has helped (although it doesn’t change the number of reading hours in a week)!

  4. Naomi April 19, 2018 at 9:47 am - Reply

    I’m glad you read this one, because the copy I requested is still in transit-land somewhere. I shouldn’t have put all my eggs in one basket…
    I love the quotes you included. That description of the word Happiness is so great, but I have to say that it puts a damper on my own feelings of the word Happy/Happiness. It’s one of my favourite words – I feel as though it fits its definition wonderfully. I always picture a nice, round happy face – not a “flapping, stretched” one.

    • Buried In Print April 19, 2018 at 10:30 am - Reply

      Oh, that’s too bad. It must be hanging out with “your” copy of Reservoir 13! I’m still interested in reading Sandbars, too, but it looked longer and the two other books that are due at the end of the week nudged me further towards TBG (so short)!

  5. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis April 19, 2018 at 9:33 am - Reply

    I haven’t read this particular Shields, but coincidently both you and Brian of the Dusty Bookcase sent me reviews of this today. I know it’s due to Simon’s 1977 Club, but, still, I think the universe is telling me I should read this one. 😉

    • Buried In Print April 19, 2018 at 10:29 am - Reply

      It’s important to heed the call of the bookish universe. Otherwise, we would never find “reasons” to read through our massive TBR lists!

  6. whisperinggums April 18, 2018 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    Yes, I read this, but so long ago that I can’t recollect much except that I like it, though not quite as much as The stone diaries (that was the title wasn’t it? I always get confused with Margaret Laurence’s book which I think was The stone angel!) Of course, I could leave this page and Google, but I’m too lazy. The point is that I like Shields – I also liked her “little” (because it was small in a way) biography of Jane Austen. I loved how she brought a writer’s sensibility to it.

    • Buried In Print April 19, 2018 at 6:58 am - Reply

      Oh, that’s funny: I hadn’t thought of it that way. When you grow up with The Stone Angel, everything by Carol Shields feels distinctly separated from Laurence by time/generation (although there are similarities in style, theme and voice), but I can see where they would blur together under the CanLit umbrella if you simply discovered both in another context. The Stone Diaries is much more satisfying in many ways. I loved that biography too and feel like she had exactly the right balance for a “little” biography. Have you tried any others of hers? I feel like you might quite enjoy Larry’s Party.

  7. Laila@BigReadingLife April 18, 2018 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Oh I love this book, I love Carol Shields. She is one of the best. Now I want to go and reread her novels! I still have not yet read her short stories, though.

    • Buried In Print April 18, 2018 at 3:19 pm - Reply

      Do you have her stories, or would you have to borrow them? I might work my way through them (mostly rereading, but they’d feel like fresh reads – it’s been a long time) after I finish Mavis Gallant’s collections!

      • Naomi April 19, 2018 at 9:40 am - Reply

        I was going to suggest to you this very thing!

        • Buried In Print April 19, 2018 at 10:13 am - Reply

          They would actually make for a great combo between some Gallant collections. Hmmm.

      • Laila@BigReadingLife April 19, 2018 at 10:09 am - Reply

        I own Dressing Up For the Carnival but my library system has the Collected Stories. I’ll get to them one day!

        • Buried In Print April 19, 2018 at 10:13 am - Reply

          That’s the one I purchased separately too, but eventually I bought the collection (because I couldn’t resist the ribbon)!

  8. heavenali April 18, 2018 at 11:34 am - Reply

    I finished reading Atwood’s Dancing Girls yesterday.
    I like the sound of this especially with you representing Margaret Laurence there. I still have two books of that series to read too. I read one Carol Sheilds book years ago – Unless – which I am sure I enjoyed.

    • Buried In Print April 18, 2018 at 3:18 pm - Reply

      I wanted to read that Atwood collection too, but was caught up in Gallant reading and planning with stories. This has been the hardest of the Club years to choose from! I think you’d quite enjoy The Box Garden and Small Ceremonies, probably The Republic of Love as well. She’s a bit Taylor-ish with a dash of Comyns (the latter in her stories).

  9. kaggsysbookishramblings April 18, 2018 at 10:10 am - Reply

    It’s always good to find that a book you loved holds up after such a long time – and this one seems to be getting a bit of blog love this week! 🙂

    • Buried In Print April 18, 2018 at 3:14 pm - Reply

      Ooo, I’ll have to take a closer look – see who else has been reading this one! I’m always a little relieved when a reread still hits the spot.

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