Thursday, November 09, 2006

41. Larry's Party

by Carol Shields

I need to read this book again.

Let me set the record straight on this: I’m not disappointed in the book, but I’m disappointed in myself for how I read it. When I started my second year of the 52 books, I set certain goals for myself to read more award-winning and historically acclaimed novels. I fell into a reading slump for awhile, which meant that I had to start reading faster to ensure I’d make my quota. And instead of letting my whims dictate which book I chose next, I made myself read the books I’d promised myself I would. I realize now that was a bad idea because I can make a reading plan of all the books I want to read and in what order I read them, but something always comes along to knock the plan around. There is such a thing as reading a book at the wrong time, being in the wrong mood for it or not having enough time for it. This is what happened with Larry’s Party. I need to read it again.

From 1977 to 1997, this is Larry Weller’s life. We meet him just before he’s to marry Dorrie Shaw and embark on the honeymoon that will set the tone for the rest of his life. Larry is just a regular guy, having worked in a flower shop since school and living in his parents’ home up until his wedding. He doesn’t have much in the way of aspirations, but he knows he has to support his wife and the son that is quickly on his way (the baby being the motivation behind the marriage). On the honeymoon to England, Larry’s first introduced to the idea of garden mazes and is smitten from that point forward. He even goes so far as to start a maze in the lawn of his Winnipeg home, but after years of cultivation Dorrie’s irritation with the project gets the best of her and she bulldozes half of the maze before Larry rushes home to stop her. The two divorce shortly thereafter.

Larry moves to Oak Park where he meets Beth Prior, the woman who’s to become his second wife. He sends money for the care of his son Ryan and takes care of him on vacations. Beth is different from Dorrie – she’s more sexually open, she studies female saints, and is accepting of the landscape design business Larry’s started for himself. Maybe Larry’s happier now or maybe Beth is a better fit for him or maybe he’s just learned how to be a better husband after the dissolution of his first marriage, but it’s evident that Larry’s happier in this part of his life than he has been before. At least, until he turns forty. “He understands at last the rather surprising, hard dullness of being an adult,” Carol Shields writes, “and perhaps for that reason he’s become a man too easily consoled by games and surfaces. And now, suddenly, having celebrated four decades of his life, he is a sad man but without the sad history to back it up.”

That pretty much sums up Larry’s character. It also sums up a lot of other people’s characters, which is why Shields’s account of his life is so remarkable. Larry isn’t incredibly smart, but he’s not by any means an idiot. He’s not a stud with the ladies, but he certainly does all right. He tries his best to be a father from afar and he’s truly broken up about his marriage’s failure, the upside being that he seems far more comfortable in his second marriage to Beth. He’s never really had any career goals, but stumbles into his life’s work by accident. He’s a regular guy, like so many of us regular people who only want our lives to mean something. When Larry reaches forty, his sadness at not having done more is palpable, both to him and to us. That he’s able to have made something out if all at the end is what makes his story amazing.

Even as I write about this book and flip through its pages I know I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have. I was busy. I was trying to read other things for GB and it wasn’t until I took the book on a train trip to Michigan that I devoted an uninterrupted number of hours to it. I saw that I could have loved it, but it was too late. This wasn’t the right time for me to read it, sandwiched between other books I was trying to review or finish for Book Club. This isn’t a book to finish quickly. This is one through which you travel slowly, feeling each page in your fingers as you turn it, drinking in the words and taking your time to get to know Larry, realizing that you’re getting to know yourself through Larry. It’s not a book to read because you’ve decided you want to read Orange Prize shortlists; it’s a book to read because Shields is able to tell us so much about ourselves through a man so ordinary we probably wouldn’t look twice if passed him on the street. I’m glad I read this once, but I have no doubt that the second time will prove itself the more endearing one.


Blogger Doppelganger said...

I hear you. I had the same feeling when I read Midnight's Children. I sincerely hope you get a chance to reread Larry's Party on your own terms. It's one of my all-time favourite novels. (I even have a tattoo of one of the maze illustrations in the book. Does that sound crazy? It made perfect sense at the time...) Anywaaaaay, I honestly believe this book should be required reading for the entire human race.

12:26 AM  

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