The 1993 novel The Stone Diaries by the Canadian-American author Carol Shields is awash in paradoxes. It is ostensibly the fictional autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, but in this autobiography we learn more about the people surrounding Daisy than about herself. Since it is a piece of literature, we assume that it is not factual, but included in the book are eight pages of family photographs labeled with the names of the characters (fittingly, though, there is no picture of Daisy). Through these contradictions, Shields builds up a picture of the life of a woman who at first glance appears completely average, but whose life explores the difference between surface and interior.
The novel’s chapter titles – Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Sorry, Ease, Illness and Decline, Death – seem to announce that the novel will be built on the chronology of Daisy’s life. However, in most cases, the novel swoops away from Daisy’s perspective and reveals the inner thoughts and feelings of other people, even people whom Daisy herself never got a chance to meet.
In “Birth, 1905,” we encounter Daisy’s parents: the morbidly obese and orphaned Mercy Stone and her husband, the stone mason Cuyler Goodwill, who finds her sexually irresistible. We also encounter the elderly Clementine Flett, the Goodwills’ next door neighbor, who is in the process of leaving her deadbeat husband Magnus. Mercy doesn’t realize that she is pregnant. She dies as she gives birth to Daisy on the kitchen floor, and a devastated Cuyler turns to religion for consolation. Daisy is sent to live with Clementine as she moves to Winnipeg to be with her adult son, Barker. Barker, a botanist, is obsessed with the flower lady’s-slipper, the shape of which is suggestively sexual. Daisy seems to be happy in this ersatz family unit.
“Childhood, 1916” picks up when Daisy is 11 and Clementine has died after being run over by a bicycle. Cuyler is reunited with his daughter in Bloomington, Indiana, where he is now a successful mason. Daisy grows up, goes to college, and then at 22 year old, in the chapter “Marriage, 1927,” she marries Harold Hoad, a man of similar social standing. Nothing seems wrong with Harold besides his heavy drinking, but before their marriage is consummated in Paris on their honeymoon, Harold flings himself out of the hotel window and plummets to his death.
In “Love, 1936,” Daisy is a widow in Bloomington. Although she has never spoken about what happened on her honeymoon to anyone, somehow everyone knows the story – particularly the part about her marriage being unconsummated, which means that she is still a virgin at 31. Cuyler has built a memorial stone tower to Mercy and has remarried. Later, when he dies, Cuyler’s last thoughts are again with Mercy.
When Daisy goes to visit her old childhood home in Winnipeg, she reconnects with Barker, who finds her very sexually desirable. As we see them in “Motherhood, 1947,” Daisy and Barker have married and have three children. Daisy is a typical housewife, and her life is a reasonably content one, although she is plagued by melancholy and has no sexual desire for Barker. She raises the kids, takes care of the house. Whatever spiritual balm she needs comes from her elaborate and complex garden. When Barker retires, he starts writing a gardening column for the local newspaper.
The chapter titled “Work, 1955-1964” makes it sound like Daisy suddenly gets a high-powered career. But no – rather, after Barker’s death, the work Daisy undertakes is Barker’s gardening column in the paper. Although this chapter is ostensibly about all the writing Daisy does for 10 years, it consists entirely of correspondence she receives – and none of her letters or gardening columns are included. We learn that because of her advice, she becomes a kind of small-town celebrity. Barker’s niece and her out-of-wedlock daughter, Victoria, live with Daisy. Daisy comes to think of Victoria as a granddaughter.
In “Sorrow, 1965,” Daisy’s newspaper column is taken away from her by a conniving male colleague and she falls into a deep depression. Her voice is again absent from this chapter, which is instead filled with the other characters trying to guess at the reason why Daisy is so deeply affected. Losing the column? Burgeoning feminist realization of unexpressed yearning? Mourning for her youth? Loneliness? Exhaustion? Boredom? Regret? There’s no right answer – besides maybe “all of the above.”
As she grows old, Daisy retires to Florida. There we see in “Ease, 1977,” that she lives in a retirement community and thinks a lot about her father Cuyler and her father-in-law Magnus. Victoria visits her often, and at one point Daisy brings her to the Orkney Islands to see Magnus’s grave. Magnus turns out to be 100 years old, alive, and still able to recite large chunks of Jane Eyre from memory. Eventually, when she is 80, Daisy’s health falters. In “Illness and Decline,” she loses physical and mental capacity and eventually ends up near-comatose in the hospital.
The final chapter, “Death,” attempts to summarize Daisy’s life in a variety of ways. We see lists of her favorite recipes, places where she lived, all the books she owned, and so on. We see possible inscriptions for her gravestone, ways to explain who was in death notices, and how her friends and family could react to the news that she has died. Daisy herself speculates about what will happen when her children go through her papers, and the inferences and conclusions they will make about her life. In the end, Daisy’s tombstone reads, “Daisy Goodwill Flett, wife, mother, citizen of our century. May she rest in peace.” Then we have Daisy’s last words: “I am not at peace.”
It will not be surprising, since The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Governor General’s Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prizer, that reviewers love this book. The novel’s experimental disassembling of the genre of autobiography, its focus on an average and usually forgotten middle-aged woman, and the existential questions about the nature of identity and the definition of the self that lie at the heart of the work, all come in for praise. At the same time, Shields is highly lauded for her “attuned ear for the nuances of language and the way they attach to feelings and probe the most delicate layers of human consciousness,” as Jay Parini put it in The New York Times.