Carol Shields, Small Ceremonies
Judith Gill leads an ordinary life. She lives in Canada, is married to Martin, a professor of English Literature specialist of John Milton, and the mother of Richard, a secretive twelve-year-old, and Meredith, a sixteen-year-old in the delicate phase between childhood and womanhood.
Between the demands of her family and her job (Judith is a biographer), she often feels more like a witness of the lives of others rather than the actress of her own life. She witnesses how her son is involved in a long-distance “relationship”, with the girl of the family who let them their flat in Birmingham for Martin’s sabbatical in an English University, while her daughter is smitten with Furlong Eberhardt, a colleague of Martin and writer of what she despises as cheap prose.
Beside her family, Judith observes her friends: Furlong, the nice enough writer with “spots of commonness”, Nancy Kranz, a woman always on the run but with whom she has the most interesting conversations, Ruthie and Roger, the non-conformist couple who live together but refuse to marry, or again the Spaldings, whom she has never met but in which flat she’s lived for a year, which gives her a special insight into their lives and personalities. During the nine months of Judith’s life the novel encompasses, she also tries to make sense of the life of Canadian writer Susannah Moodie, whose biography she writes, sensing that she can’t really get to know her.
Progressively she realizes that it is not only Susannah Moodie who evades her, despite her close scrutiny, but also her friends (and the length of the period about which she writes, also corresponding the gestation of her book on Susannah Moodie, is significant in that respect!). Finally, she can be as obtuse about what is going on as the next person. Of course it also becomes evident she doesn’t know her family as well as she thought she did, not only her secretive son who hides his mail, but also her husband, whom she suspects keeps something from her, but not at all what she could have imagined, and her daughter, who is more a woman already than she can suspect. But it is maybe the Spaldings that will surprise her most, in a funny twist toward the end of the novel… However, despite the impossibility to really pierce the mysteries of others, Judith decides that she can only find true happiness in being a “translator”, a “reporter of visions”. She admits that “[her] own life will never be enough for [her].” She adds: “I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.”
Finally, Small Ceremonies makes a both fun and fascinating novel, full of anecdotes, despite being the account of the seemingly uneventful life of a wife and mother. I first read about Carol Shields in State of the Union, by Douglas Kennedy. The way he spoke of her novels, through his narrator, made me want to read her, and I was not disappointed. I will probably be reading other novels by her, like The Box Garden, which is about Judith’s sister. If I could compare her to any other writer, I would say she reminds me a little bit of David Lodge.