Chapter 19: “The Stone Diaries” by Carol Shields (1995)

“‘I do remember that once she said she liked pansies at a funeral. Not those dumb pansies with faces. What she liked were the absolutely pure purple ones, those deep, deep velvety petals. That’s the only thing I can remember her saying apropos to death.’ ‘She just let her life happen to her.’ ‘Well, why the hell not?’ ‘It was like…Like she was always going after some stray little thought with a needle and thread.’ ‘Afraid to look inside herself. In case there was nothing there.'”

nlc006588-v6Sorry I haven’t posted in a while—the Internet at my house has been fiercely unreliable as of late, and I have been unable to post anything. However, I finished Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries (1995)—my 23rd completed Pulitzer novel—a couple days ago, and am here now to tell you all about my thoughts of it!

This project, I must confess, is becoming more and more grueling. Joshua and I couldn’t sleep last night, so we took a midnight road trip up and down Route 50 in the dark of the evening hours. During the trip, we discussed the project and how we think we’re doing and we both decided that we’re getting really burnt out on reading. Both of us have only seriously pursued this project for four months, however we have both read nearly 20 of these books each—personally, I have read six of them in the last week and a half. We are completing these novels at breakneck speeds.

When I finished The Stone Diaries, I immediately went to my shelf, placed it back in its proper spot and grabbed the next novel, meandered back to my futon, laid down, and commenced reading. And after 20 or so pages, I suddenly realized that I am becoming a recluse. I am forsaking the great outdoors, my writing, my bicycle, my friends, my guitar, my God, and everything else that encompasses my daily existence.

The Pulitzer Project may very well turn into me an incredibly well-read connoisseur of American literature, but conversely, it may very well be the tipping point in my life that drives me toward insanity.

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When I was a student at Northern Illinois University, I enrolled in a class titled “Introduction to Poetry”—the professor was nationally-acclaimed poet Dr. Amy Newman. The year before, I had taken an advanced creative writing class at Waubonsee Community College and my professor (and my peers) thought I was the bee’s knees. Seriously, I could do no wrong in their eyes. Every poem I presented was met with praise. So, when I went to NIU, I really thought I had it going on in the poetry department. However, much to my surprise and chagrin, when I presented my first poem in Dr. Newman’s class, she merely smirked and flippantly said, “Oh. That was nice, Drew.”

A wave of humiliation swept over me and I made it my personal goal to impress Dr. Newman. I didn’t really care if my poetry was actually good or not—I just wanted to impress her.

After every assignment, I read my poem to the class and everyone would discuss it, gauging whether it had any poetic merit or not. The students, lesser critics that they were, usually agreed that my writing was pretty good. Dr. Newman, on the other hand, would cringe at every recital of my poetry; and she had the same complaint every time: after my first poem, she told me, “Drew, I feel like you’re wandering around in the desert, and you see a cliff off in the distance, but don’t even dare to approach it;” the second time, she said, “Drew, I feel like you’ve seen a cliff off in the distance and you’re walking towards it, but you’re too afraid to really investigate it;” after the third poem, she said, “Drew, I feel like you’ve walked up to the edge of a cliff and you’re inching your feet over the edge and just gazing down into a valley instead of taking the big leap;” after my final workshop poem, she said, “Drew! That was so much better, but you’re not still there!” I finally asked, “Dr. Newman—what do you mean?? That was my best one yet!” She agreed, but then added, “It’s like you’ve come up to the cliff and you’ve finally taken a giant leap, but, on the way down, you saw a tree root sticking out of the side of the cliff walls, grabbed it, and are now just hanging on for dear life!”

If I were to summarize how I felt about Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, I’m afraid to report that’s how I’d explain it. While the novel was well written, and while Shields did a wonderful job of telling a story, there was something missing from the novel—it just didn’t grab me and hold my attention captive the way Gilead, Olive Kitteridge, or American Pastoral did. I felt like Shields had jumped off the proverbial cliff, but was whisked away to safety at the last minute by a giant bird that swooped in to her rescue.

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The Stone Diaries tells the 80 year life of Daisy Goodwill. I have to give her credit—Shields really attempts to tell her story in an interesting, dynamic, and engaging way, but unfortunately falls just short. After I finished the novel in two sittings, I closed the book, thought “Huh—what should I read next?” Like I said before, Shields wrote a good story; I was genuinely interested in what would happen next in Daisy Goodwill’s life. However, I wasn’t really captivated by or enthralled with the novel. After finishing the novel and learning about all of the things that happened to Daisy Goodwill and things that she did, I suddenly realized that I, in no way, knew Daisy Goodwill as a character than I did when I was first introduced to her (which is unfortunate, because I really thought I would’ve come to like her). Even during the sections that are written from Daisy’s perspective, in the first person, the reader is never told how Daisy thinks of certain situations, or how she feels about her life; and Shields certainly doesn’t shed much light on the subject.

How unfortunate for the reader—even after being introduced to the main character and hearing her entire life’s story, she is still very much a stranger.

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However, all of that being said, I can’t help but wonder if it was Carol Shields’ intent to write Daisy that way. There are a several different places in the novel where other characters are discussing Daisy, and in almost every section, Daisy is described as a woman who didn’t even really, truly exist.

And on the last page of the novel, Shields writes: “‘I am not at peace.’ Daisy Goodwill’s final (unspoken) words.” Could it be that Shields intentionally wrote Daisy in a secluded way because Daisy was, herself, so secluded and cut off from being real?

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