The Box Garden is Carol Shield’s second novel, and her heroine, Charleen Forrest, is the sister of Small Ceremonies‘s Judith Gill. Charleen sees herself, mostly when she compares herself to her sister who seems so in charge of her life, as a kind of loser. A divorcee with a fifteen-year-old sweet and uncomplicated son, she suffers from what she sees as a general lack of courage.

She is in a relationship with Eugene, a divorced orthodontist disliked by her fortyish hippy friends who see him as too middle-class for their tastes. Probably because of this pressure and because she feels that she and Eugene are rejects, the unwanted parts of previous unions, Charleen cannot decide to commit herself again. Professionally, Charleen is struggling to make ends meet, as part-time assistant for a scientific university journal, a job she feels was given to her out of charity, and part-time poet. But as far as her “real” job is concerned, she seems to have run dry of words, since she hasn’t written a single line of poetry for over two years.

On the occasion of the remarriage of her mother, Charleen travels to Toronto with Eugene. Meeting again Judith, a sister she admires but doesn’t see very often, and Martin, a scholarly brother-in-law she doesn’t know that well, Charleen is forced to revisit the difficult and distant relationship she has always had with her mother. Meanwhile, back in Vancouver, worrying things happen concerning her son Seth… Charleen is embarked against her will on a journey of self-discovery at the term of which she will finally bring closure on several events of the past.

The Box Garden is at the same time like and unlike other books by Carol Shields. Like other novels, it deals with a middle-aged women having self doubts, looking back on their lives and relationships, questioning their choices of career, or more generally their choices in life. The heroine is always connected to the world of writing (Judith is a biographer, Charleen is a poet), and struggling with the importance her craft should take in her life. Like life, the novel has elements of both drama and comedy. One scene stand out from this one, and made me laugh out loud: the little quid-pro-quo between Charleen and her brother-in-law. However, if Swann, Unless, and Small Ceremonies all left me with the feeling that they lacked a little something to really stand out, this something was not missing from The Box Garden. It felt more neatly tied up than the above-mentioned novels. I particularly liked the little twist toward the end, which I never saw coming.  What I also enjoyed is the inside knowledge gained by having read Small Ceremonies before, and concerning Charleen’s feelings of inadequacy when she compared herself with her sister, who seems to her more in control of her life (and that everyone can have when judging the appearances of someone else’s life). Only readers of Small Ceremonies know the truth: that Judith herself is no more in control that Charleen is!

The Box Garden, written in 1977, is one of these novels that ages well, and which describes the angst of the middle-aged woman with wit and a style that flows…

Rating: 4.5/5