My first experience with Canadian literature was with a Carol Shields novel. I was in the seventh or eighth grade, I can’t exactly remember which, and I had just gotten into the habit of listening to talk radio on the CBC before going to bed (don’t ask; I was a strange child), and the program that aired just as I was nodding off was one in which selections from a Canadian novel were read every night over the course of several days or weeks. That novel was The Stone Diaries. My parents bought me a copy on our next trip to “the city” (Winnipeg), and I was off. To this day it remains tied for the much coveted title of “Favourite Novel” (the other contender is A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale). Despite becoming enamoured with her work at such an early age, The Republic of Love is only the third novel of hers that I have read. Why? Quite simply, because of Larry’s Party. That book was a catastrophic failure, so far as I was concerned. Larry was not a man in any sense that I recognized, nor was he a woman in a man’s body; I simply could not believe in the character at all, and it was a struggle to finish the book. I consoled myself with short story collections like Various Miracles and Dressing Up for the Carnival, but I was put off her novels for quite a few years. All this has now changed.
I fell in love with this book. The book’s two protagonists, Fay McLeod and Tom Avery are damaged but real, well-drawn people with full lives, lives that feel like they could be biography rather than fiction. The main action of the book, and the main pleasure, is to watch these two characters move in a spiral around one another, sharing friends and places, existing on the periphery of each other’s lives but never quite meeting, and never quite knowing why they fail to connect with the various lovers or almost-lovers that come and go. Destiny seems to have a hand in their eventual (inevitable) romance, but there is so much else going on, such a richness of detail to how their lives are presented, that it never rings false, never feels cheap or out-dated. The Republic of Love is an exquisite, satisfying book about real people finding real love, and living, more or less, happily ever after, and Shields somehow manages it without being sentimental or saccharine.
That’s not to say that the book is perfect, of course. There are little things about it, not really relevant to the plot, where it’s plain that Shields had no real experience. Things like fast food. Tom Avery eats on a pretty regular basis at his local A&W (a pretty appropriate choice, given the Winnipeg setting), but it’s obvious that Shields hadn’t set foot in one in more than a decade, if she ever had. The menu items he orders, which would have been popular when she was young had been discontinued for decades at the time the novel is set, she populates the restaurant with waitresses as well as cashiers and cooks, and the patrons tip regularly. None of this is accurate for any fast food franchise, never mind A&W specifically. It’s a small mistake, but one that could have been avoided by eating a single meal for research, though I think I only found it jarring because I worked there for several years as a teenager. There were a few other similar things, mostly characters using slang terms and customs that belong to the generation before them, but they are of small consequence.
The Republic of Love was my first book as part of The Canadian Book Challenge. Next up: Fat Woman, by Leon Rooke.