Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields

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While in the English home Judith discovered the professor’s collection of unpublished novels.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 example, 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 husband 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.

I first ran this review in 2008 on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  There are still a few Carol Shields books that I have not read, saving them for retirement, but none of the ones I have read disappointed.  She’s always excellent.  She should be a household name, but she never quite cracked the highest levels of literary success.  She was big, but never that big.  It’s too bad, really.  I hope her star grows rather than fades over time.  

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