Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields is a little gem, a masterful chamber piece. It's not the grand orchestra of The Stone Diaries but it is wonderful none-the-less. Set in a Canadian university town in the 1970's, Small Ceremonies is a year-in-the-life of Judith Gill, mother, wife, biographer. Judith lives with her husband, a professor of Milton, her teenage daughter and her young son. Their family is haunted by the year they spent living in England in the home of an English university professor whose family spent that same year in Cyprus.
While in the English home Judith discovered the professor's collection of unpublished novels. She read them all and later used the plot of one as the basis for a novel she wrote as part of a creative writing class. She never pursued the novel, gave it up to return to writing biographies, but her professor and friend Furlong Eberhardt used her version of the novel as the basis for his only successful work. That's the basic plot of Small Ceremonies but it has little to do with what makes the book so wonderful.
What makes Small Ceremonies such a treat is Ms. Shields' insight into the ordinary, into what makes the simple events of every day so mysterious and so full of wonder. She does this without sentiment but with open eyes. For examply, one day Judith Gill searches through her husbands desk for writing paper and finds a drawer full of yarn. This is so out of character for her husbands that she can't help but wonder what is going on with him. Who does he know that kints? Is this evidence of an affair? The reader suspects all sorts of things just as Judith does, but she cannot bring herself to confront him about a drawer full of yarn. Judith's son Richard corresponds with the English professor's daughter each week, waits anxiously every Tuesday for the mail and the letter from Anita whom he has clearly fallen in love with though they have never met nor exchanged pictures over the course of their years long correspondence. One day the letters stop coming, of course. Judith sees her son's sorrow and also sees how quickly he gets over it and notices how the loss of the weekly letters actually helps Richard become outgoing enough to develop a small circle of friends.
Nothing huge happens in Small Ceremonies, just the unexpected things that happen now and then in an ordinary life. But these small surprises add up to an enchanting read. Carol Shields is the sort of writer who says things we'd all like to say, but didn't know how to or didn't know we needed to. You're likely to find yourself somewhere in one of her books, or someone you know. When you do, you'll see that even everyday folk can be the stuff of novels.
I'm giving Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields five out of five stars.
Interesting book. Its about a writer and how she finds her place in her world, documenting nine months of her life. Book is well written, and explores this woman's life as a mother, wife, friend, daughter and writer. Easy to relate to and good read.
I really like Carol Shields. I like the way she says things. I like her insights. She's a gifted and talented writer.
From Publishers Weekly
On the surface, there's nothing about Judith Gill that would recommend her as an ideal protagonist. She's ordinary: wife of a rather remote academic, mother of adolescents she no longer really knows, biographer of arcane subjects. But Shields's gift is in making the ordinary compelling. What's surprising in this, her first novel originally published in 1976 and released in the U.S. for the first time, are the almost playful touches, which stand in contrast to the relatively placid rhythm of her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries. Just when Small Ceremonies begins to look like a quiet little story about a middle-class woman in an anonymous Canadian city, Shields tosses in a twist that forces the reader to look at Judith in a new light. It's Shields's repeated juxtaposition of orderliness and spontaneity, the mundane with the unexpected, that makes Judith an appealing subject-though she wouldn't see herself that way. The consummate biographer, Judith focuses more on others than on herself. And while Shields doesn't moralize in this slight novel, if there is a message, it is this: we may think we know the people who fill our lives, but we really only know parts of them-and we're fooling ourselves to think otherwise.