Friday, January 04, 2013

Larry's Party

Larry's Party / Carol Shields
Toronto: Random House, c1997.
339 p.

I've owned this book for quite a while now, and finally picked it up to read. I'd heard it had some elements involving mazes and labyrinths in it, which is the main reason I was interested. But I hadn't realized until I started reading how very much the labyrinth is involved in this entire story -- everyone interested in mazes and labyrinths should really read this! Each section opens with a title page and an image of an historical maze -- I enjoyed identifying each one and noting the discussion about the names and forms of mazes and labyrinths in the text. As this is what really struck me about this book, I will review it from my perspective as a labyrinth facilitator and aficionado.

The story is this: Larry Weller, the main character, starts out as a florist in Winnipeg (and the city is given a fairly nice role too). It's the career he sort of stumbled into after high school. He gets married young, and on his honeymoon in England he encounters Hampton Court maze, and it is true love.

He builds a maze in his yard, carefully planting and pruning shrubs to form a design of his own making. His wife Dorrie, unfortunately, dislikes both the maze and Larry's devotion to it so much that she has it partially destroyed. The marriage is also destroyed in the process.

Larry moves out; he finally leaves his floral career to move to Chicago and become a professional maze builder. He meets a new, young wife: they go to England on a Guggenheim fellowship and visit many, many continental and British mazes. Then she leaves him as well.

Larry finally moves back to Canada, this time to Toronto where his sister lives. He finds a new girlfriend and they host the titular party when both of Larry's ex-wives are coincidentally in Toronto on the same weekend. As they all have dinner in a glorious confusion of voices and personalities, Larry realizes some long-hidden truths about himself and about love.

The novel finishes with an excerpt from Bradfield's 'Sentan Wells' (1854), and at this point some of the things that had been bothering me about the story made sense.

Some run the Shepherd's Race - a rut
Within a grass-plot deeply cut
And wide enough to tread - 
A maze of path, of old designed
To tire the feet, perplex the mind
Yet pleasure heart and head;
'Tis not unlike this life we spend,
And where you start from, there you end.

If you think of the entire book as a labyrinth, the progression of the story and the manner of telling it are perfectly balanced. The book is made up of various sections, each named "Larry's *whatever*" and this gave me the impression of a set of linked short stories. This impression was made stronger by the constant repetition of certain elements, such as Dorrie's dislike of his maze, or Larry's experience with his father, within many sections. It happened too frequently to be an editing slip-up so I pondered the significance of this initially irritating habit -- and decided that it was representative of the way we think about our lives. Certain stories keep being retold, either to others or in our own minds. We dwell on certain facts and not others.

Then again, looking at the story as a labyrinth, it makes sense that things repeat. As you walk a labyrinth, you circle around and come back to nearly the same spot you were before, just one path over. The perspective changes depending on where you are on the path, and where you are in relation to others who may also be walking the same path. You circle around the central question both coming and going. And as T.S. Eliot said so pithily, "And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."

I'd held off on reading this because (gasp) I am not really a big fan of Carol Shields' style. And here too, I found her style a bit tedious at certain points. The time frame of the book kept me puzzling over where and how the action happened as well. But, Larry's life was full enough that it worked beyond the details. Of course, his fascination with mazes parallels mine so that was enough for me. However, Shields does give us a fairly complicated cast of characters who were interesting on their own, enough that I would like to see this story told from the women's point of view! Using this metaphor, however, shaped the story a little bit artificially, fitting it into the frame neatly. The ending, happy as it might be considered, and concluding with a verse, recalled some of Shakespeare's romances -- all is apparently well and both true love and the power of words have triumphed in the end.

In any case, this book explains Shields' connection with the labyrinth, and is a clear reason for the Carol Shields Memorial Labyrinth that is found in Winnipeg. A fitting tribute.

Carol Shields Memorial Labyrinth Design

(there is an interesting discussion of Shields' use of this symbol and its metaphorical resonance in the book "Garden Plots", some of which can be read online via Google Books if you are interested)


  1. This is one of those books I repeatedly pick up and then put down without reading, but this review makes me think I should at last give it a try. I didn't realize there were mazes/labyrinths involved; obviously haven't been paying attention. Isn't this now a CanLit "must read"? ;-)

  2. Leaves&Pages - yes, I think so, being Carol Shields and all. The only reason I finally read it was because of the labyrinth angle ;)It wasn't bad - and the reflections of a maze in the structure itself was interesting to follow.

  3. This has been on my shelves ever since it came out and for some reason I've not read it, although I seem to have read just about everything else Shields wrote. I really shouldn't buy books until I have a space in my reading life to get to them. My shelves are beginning to protest.
    If you like the idea of the labyrinth, have you read Barbara Vine's 'The Minotaur'? It isn't about a real labyrinth but the relationships pick up the mythical idea.

  4. This is one of Shield`s books I haven`t read. Unlike you, it isn`t even on my shelf. But you do make it sound worth reading, so I`ll add it to the list. Thanks

  5. Alex - I never worry about having space in my reading life...I just buy more bookshelves ;) And, I do have a copy of The Minotaur on those shelves as well, still unread -- I tend to gather up things that relate to labyrinths in myth and history to read eventually.

    Shonna - I'd like to see the opinion of someone who has actually read more Shields than I have, to see what they think of this book's place in her overall oeuvre. Maybe that will be you??

  6. Maybe, we'll see.
    Meanwhile, you might want to read the Staircase Letters. It is a book of correspondence between Shields, Elma Gerwin, and Arthur Motyer. It would fit into your challenge and give you a different side of Shields.

  7. Shonna - thanks for the reminder! I'd completely forgotten about that book -- going to place a hold on it now...

  8. This is a book I need to add to my collection. I've read two of her other books, Unless and The Box Garden. By the sounds of your review this one is well worth getting the print version because each section opens with those title pages of the mazes.

  9. Jules - I wish the images were bigger, because I like them so much:) But still appealing as they are. I haven't read either of those titles, so I can't compare, but this book was certainly interesting to me.

  10. such a thoughtful and compelling review. makes me want to find a labyrinth and waste the day wandering through it.

  11. Valerie - what a lovely idea! Though you wouldn't be wasting the day... :)

  12. Just stopping in from the What's in a Name challenge....sounds like a very different premise for a book. Now I just need to add "professional maze builder" to my list of life goals!

  13. bookshelfgargoyle - thanks for stopping by! Yes, building mazes would be quite a fascinating career I think!

  14. Larry's Party was recommended me by my partner, who rates it as one of her favourite books. She also has a well-read friend who rates it very highly. I eventually gave it a go and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Shields paints the picture, the trajectory, of a man's life. She captures his inner thoughts and motivations, his fears, joys, relationships, disappointments... A fascinating read. And yes, how novel, the story of a man who was a professional maze maker. Good stuff.


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