“This is the way it’s done, isn’t it? This is how other people do it.” How other people live their lives, that is.

When Carol Shields tells the story of Larry Weller’s life, it begins with his having picked up somebody else’s coat and it ends with a party. Those who have read and admired the final dialogue-soaked scene of The Box Garden will be able to anticipate the rich and animated scene that awaits. (And dedicated Shields’ readers will know that there is always a party.)

“Men have always been a mystery, the great mystery for me, the unknown,” she explains. “I don’t understand men. I don’t know how they think, what their bodies feel like to them. So why not spend some time considering that mystery?”

In an epistolary interview with Joan Thomas, Carol Shields writes: “Perhaps you can call that ‘my theory of the day.’ That writing must come out of what passionately interests us. Nothing else will do.”

So the thought-processes and preoccupations of Larry Weller passionately interested her and readers are introduced to this reflective and complicated guy. She and Larry first met in a short story, “Larry’s Jacket”, and in some ways this novel is the record of their getting acquainted.

Readers, too, follow Larry through the decades. Each chapter is firmly rooted in a specific time and place, but there is a process of reorientation that travels throughout the novel, whereby Larry repeats and reinterprets important aspects of his life and person, each time modifying them just slightly to reflect his current concerns.

“I think I must have been in chapter three when I realized that each of these chapters was, in a sense, a small maze that Larry enters and then exits at the end, so the structure felt right for the material. Getting him in and out of each chapter was the trick.” (This is from 2007’s Random Illuminations: Conversations with Carol Shields by Eleanor Wachtel.)

But knowing Larry also requires that we know the people whom Larry knows, so Carol Shields takes us into his younger years and earliest understanding. Of his mother, for instance:

“The calamity that occurred in the autumn of 1949, one year before he was born, was inescapable, housed as it was in the walls like a layer of formaldehyde insulation, an always present, tightly lashed narrative embracing everyone who lived under the family roof. And so Larry knows his mother’s suffering. He’s always known it, filling in around the known bits with his imagination.”

This tender way Carol Shields has, of “filling in around the known bit”, feels organic. Like you’re all sitting around the kitchen table, in a gentle gossipy exchange. Readers turn pages and reveal layers of Larry-ness. And it’s not all serious. There is a particularly fun passage in the chapter titled “Larry’s Penis”. (If you’ve read the novel, I’m sure you remember it!)

The aspect of the novel which seemed so prominent to me on my last reading, in 2001, was how Larry felt about his working life. (My 2001 read was a reread, too, encouraged by a bookclub discussion. Also rereading in 2020? Bookish Beck!) Working life is something that I long to see more of, in fiction, and Larry’s ruminations still stand out. As a kid, I had little concept of what it meant when adults went to work and I’ve never grown out of the desire to know what it’s like to spend your days labouring at different tasks, how differently people’s days are shaped by work.

“In the end, anything’s better than nothing, even the working stiff’s daily grind. Some work is graceless, he knows that. Work can be dirty, noisy, dangerous, degrading, but it’s still work, and that’s what turns the gears of life. He understands this spare, singular fact better than he ever be able to understand the unguessable secrets of love and happiness. Years later, when his life was going badly, he came to see work at the only consolation for persisting in the world.”

There is plenty of discussion about specific kinds of work, but that would be spoilery. And, anyway, as much as I still enjoy that part of the novel, what preoccupied me in this reading was how neatly specific parts of the story nestle up against other stories she’s told/novels she’s written, and how the memory of his parents’ marriage haunts all of his relationships, throughout the parts of his life we see on the page.

Larry’s Party (1997) followed The Stone Diaries (1993), which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Governor General’s Award, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and was a bestseller everywhere from Entertainment Weekly to the New York Times. About Larry’s Party, Shields told Eleanor Wachtel: “I needed to write a lighter book.”

This is the way it’s done, the way that Carol Shields does it.