Women’s Prize 1998: “Larry’s Party,” Carol Shields

Larry’s Party won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 1998, and focuses on the life and thoughts of a pretty average white man from Canada. The book’s chapters are divided into various aspects of his life, such as friends, work, parents, kid, and clothes, with chapters about his two wives being conspicuously absent. This book really shows its age, as today we are all prone to the question, “Why is there a need for yet another straight, white male main character?”; a question that hadn’t even entered society’s consciousness yet.

The novel’s saving grace comes in the last chapter, when Larry and his girlfriend throw a dinner party and invite his two ex-wives, who are both coincidentally in town for the weekend. During the dinner they talk about what it means to be a man in ‘this day and age’ and inevitably comment on how the way men live their lives directly relates to women, and how it’s women’s turn to be in the spotlight and take control of the narrative. Unfortunately, this is done through interrupted dialogue between the dinner party guests, so the reader never knows who exactly is talking, and never reads the second half of any one character’s comment, an interesting and also frustrating strategy.

Upon finishing Larry’s Party, I’m really just wondering…Why did Shields choose a man for the main character? What was the purpose? Is it a reflection of the time? Maybe she thought a novel with a man for the main character would be interesting for more people? (Eye roll, sorry I can’t help it.) I’m having a difficult time thinking of a justification, because the main character could just as easily be a woman. In addition to this, according to the reviews I read, it is Shields’ profound descriptions of human nature that make the Larry, and thus the novel, a metaphor for the universal nature of human beings—and so why couldn’t the main character be a woman? It would be that much more powerful to show the universal-ness of human nature through the perspective of a woman to show that it transcends gender completely.

Shields herself was a renowned writer, and as well as being a Full Professor of English at the University of Manitoba, she became chancellor in 1996. A novelist, playwright, and poet, Shields even wrote a biography of Jane Austen (of the same title), which won the Charles Taylor Prize for literary nonfiction in 2002, in addition to the Orange Prize for Larry’s Party. Born in Illinois, she later studied in the UK and lived in Canada, where she drew inspiration for her work. She published 10 novels, 5 shot story collections, 3 poetry collections, and 8 plays, amongst other work. She has also won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. She passed away in 2003 from breast cancer.

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