The call for witnesses in The Stone Diaries resonates throughout Shields’ work:

“Life is an endless recruiting of witnesses. It seems we need to be observed in our postures of extravagance or shame, we need attention paid to us. Our own memory is altogether too cherishing, which is the kindest thing I can say for it.”

The solution? “Other accounts are required, other perspectives, but even so our most important ceremonies – birth, love, and death—are secured by whomever and whatever is available. What chance, what caprice!”

Rereading The Stone Diaries, I was surprised to find that the photographs, the element that most tickled my fancy on my first reading of the novel some years ago, do not play a particular role in the novel.

They are simply another set of witnesses, recruited. Another way of engaging us, as readers, cast in the role of witnessing, further.

This time, I enjoyed the language, with Mercy “a woman whose desires stand at the bottom of a cracked pitcher, waiting” and sorrow that “sings along the seams of other hurts, especially the old unmediated terror of abandonment”.

And I admired the callback to the growth of The Box Garden, with this:

“She may yearn to know the true state of the garden, but she wants even more to be part of its mysteries. She understands, perhaps, a quarter of its green secrets, no more. In turn it perceives nothing of her, not her history, her name, her longings, nothing—which is why she is able to love it as purely as she does, why she has opened her arms to it, taking it as it comes, every leaf, every stem, every root and sign.”

Which also led back to half of Happenstance, wherein Brenda observes Barry’s “remarkable hair”: “Coarse as grass, with its own energy.

Originally published in two separate volumes—1980’s Happenstance with Jack Bowman’s story and 1982’s A Fairly Conventional Woman with Brenda Bowman’s—the two books were republished as a flipbook with each character’s perspective designated to each of the book’s halves. “What chance, what caprice!” Indeed.

One passage that I noted in my initial reading of Happenstance that still made me laugh this time was Jack’s desperation to avoid working on his book: “There was nothing he could do to contravene the certainty that awaited him: a whole solid clock-ticking afternoon buried alive in the dark, lonely den with that goddamned book.”

In contrast, Brenda is naturally compelled to work on her quilting, an activity she undertook by accident (like Larry discovered his love of mazes). Her work makes her feel alive, whereas Jack feels buried alive by his.

But what I truly delighted in, rereading this pair of novels about marriage, were the descriptions of snow. Even in Happenstance, viewed through Jack’s controlled and measured response, he perceives the wonder in the snowfall:

“Franklin Boulevard was buried. This was real snow; he hadn’t seen snow like this for years. Well over a foot it looked like, and the drifted peaks around the sides of the houses and trees had the Dream Whip perfection of snow that he remembered, probably falsely, from childhood. Forts, tunnels, towers, miracles of possibility.”

Admittedly, I like this passage for the simple snow-ness of it. I recognize that “Dream Whip” perfection. I’ve built those forts (their rooves mostly caved in, long before any chance of melting).

But I also admire the subtle nod that Shields’ crafting offers attentive readers. Because in the Brenda half of the book (and in the recent editions, readers can choose to begin with either spouse’s version, whereas on first publication Jack’s story was first), readers learn that Jack often mentions that Brenda is more likely to fall on the side of realism.

“In their early married days, when her husband Jack made these claims for her sense of reality, he was, she suspected, stating something else as well: that he was  not a realist, That his vision of things was romantic, withheld, speculative. Thee was such a thing as allegory, there was such a thing as metaphor, there were the rewarding riches of symbol and myth. There were layers and layers—infinite layers—of meaning.”

But, that’s actually not the case, as readers learn. In fact, when readers have an opportunity to compare Jack’s view of the snowfall with Brenda’s, it’s clear that hers is the more romantic view.

“She pulled the curtains, and there it was, everywhere. It was still falling; the sky was filled with heavy wet flakes. They drifted slowly past the window, reminding Brenda of bars of music, densely harmonic. Long rectangles of snow clung even to the blank glass office-building across the street (who would have thought there were places on that smooth face that could catch and hold these slim shapes). The smaller brick building next to it (a bank?) as softened by its white covering, the flat roof transformed to an untouched field, rural-looking, a farmer’s pasture. The sky was surprisingly radiant, a sheet of photographic film, whitish-gray with a backing of silver, and far below Brenda could see the narrow street choked with drifts.”

In this strange year, when we have all been forced to slow and reflect on our immediate surroundings in a way which stands in contrast to previous years, this idea of witnessing holds a peculiar meaning.

Shields’ writing reminds me of the importance of our own private, small ceremonies, of the urgent need to tend our box gardens, of the strange wonder of happenstance, the importance of partnerships, the miracle of entering and emerging from the maze, and the quiet moments of astonishment that cannot be captured in stone.