Reading Women: Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

Larry's Party

Larry’s Party is the story of an ordinary guy told in an extraordinary novel.

My book club, Book and Brew, has been chosen by The Reading Agency to review three books from the Women’s Prize for Fiction back catalogue as part of the Reading Women campaign. Each of our books explores identity and the final one in our trilogy is Larry’s Party by Carol Shields.

Find out more about us and what we’ll be doing here.

What’s is about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

The Women’s Prize-winning novel of Larry Weller, a man who discovers the passion of his life in the ordered riotousness of Hampton Court’s Maze.

Larry and his naive young wife, Dorrie, spend their honeymoon in England. At Hampton Court Larry discovers a new passion. Perhaps his ever-growing obsession with mazes may help him find a way through the bewilderment deepening about him as – through twenty years and two failed marriages – he endeavours to understand his own needs. And those of friends, parents, lovers, a growing son

Prize winner

Shields won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 1998, beating competition from these shortlisted titles:

Kirsten Bakis, Lives of the Monster Dogs
Pauline Melville, The Ventriloquist’s Tale
Ann Patchett, The Magician’s Assistant
Deirdre Purcell, Love Like Hate Adore
Anita Shreve, The Weight of Water

Shields is a totally new writer for me; I’d not heard of her nor read any of her work before the Reading Women project. In fact, I’m not familiar with any of the other works on the shortlist either. I was doing my GCSEs in 1998 so my head was stuck in Of Mice and Men and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I too busy browsing the pages of Just 17 to be aware of the prize even taking place.

I couldn’t find much in the news archives about how the novel was received at the time, or if its victory was a shock or celebration in the publishing world. I did find this quote from the panel of judges on why Larry’s Party deserved to take home the prize: “Larry’s Party delves into many of the themes that reappear in Carol Shields’ work and in her conversations – themes of art and words, family, gender, goodness, relationships, ‘the arc of human life’.”

What did I think?

This is a beautiful book in which nothing and everything happens.

We join Larry in his 20s and follow him into his mid-40s via two marriages, fatherhood and a career change. He makes mistakes in each of these endeavours but nothing too villainous – just the products of being emotionally unavailable or passive. He is an everyman and joyously ordinary.

Shields’ writing is exquisitely balanced between wit and poignancy. She manages to deliver a wry line or a hilarious quip (see the ‘Larry’s penis’ chapter) alongside an astute observation about the travails of life without missing a beat. It’s a glorious combination of prose.

Larry’s Party is at once profound and quotidian, reflecting the peaks and troughs of real life. It’s a gentle and hugely enjoyable read that absorbs you in the minutiae of life while reminding you about its greater meaning.

Find out more about Larry’s Party from the Women’s Prize for Fiction website.

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