Monday, January 10, 2011

book review: Larry's Party by Carol Shields

Larry's PartyThe backstory: Larry's Party won the Orange Prize in 1998.

The basics: At its simplest, it is the story of Larry Weller's life, from 1977-1997. Each chapter is a different year; there are fifteen chapters for twenty years.

My thoughts: I read The Stone Diaries years ago and didn't love it (clearly I was in the minority as it won the Pulitzer Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize), so I was curious to experience Carol Shields again. From the very first pages, I loved this novel. It's a powerful, character-driven narrative filled with wisdom. The first chapter would make a wonderful short story (and I'm one who doesn't enjoy short stories very much.) As time moves on, there are a few mentions of the future, a narrative tool I was wild about in Stiltsville (my second favorite book of 2010). 

Although I wouldn't call Larry's Party a comedic novel, it was certainly laugh-out loud funny, particularly in the first half. Shields writes with a type of humor made funnier with context. As I read passages out loud to Mr. Nomadreader, sometimes he laughed heartily with me and sometimes I laughed alone, such as with this hilarious non-sequitir:
"I've definitely decided to go back to school. Social work--that's where the jobs are going to be in the future. I was reading the other day about squirrels and I----" (p. 62)
Larry's Party is very much a novel of its time. Although it covers twenty years, it's a late nineties novel with a late nineties world view. The chapters set in the seventies and eighties are written with the wisdom of the then-present:
"It's 1980; he's about to enter the decade of decadence, only he doesn't know that yet, no one does; he only knows he feels the good hum of almost continuous anticipation in his chest, even, though dorrie griped all the way over to his folks place about how they were probably going to have a hot dinner, gray and everything, and here it was, the bitch-end of a sizzling day. (p. 41)
Larry is an endearing character because Sheilds infused him with such honesty. Unlike most of my favorite fictional characters, I don't want to spend time with Larry in real life; I don't want to be invited to his party. I do, however, want to read about his experiences, thoughts and hear his stories. His eccentricities will stick with me.

Favorite passage: "Larry listens. This is how he's learning about the world, exactly as everyone else does--from sideways comments over a lemon meringue pie, sudden outbursts of comprehension or word parallels that come curling out of the radio, out of a movie, off th epage s of a newspaper, out of a joke--and his baffled self stands back and says: so this is how it works."

The verdict: Larry's Party is a novel that will appeal to a wide range of readers. I thoroughly enjoyed Larry's tales, and I will seek out more novels by Carol Shields.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 338 pages
Publication date: August 21, 1997 
Source: my local public library

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  1. Thats funny, giving the author another chance paid off. I have the Stone Diaries on my TBR list this year so it'll be interesting to see what I think.

  2. I think that all the non-sequiturs in this book would really appeal to me, and I want to add this one to my list. I really liked the quote about the squirrel and it got me laughing, so if a book can do that in only a snippet, I think it's one I have to read! Wonderful review!

  3. Hi (from LT)

    Glad to hear you liked this a lot. I was with you on The Stone Diaries (very meh), but have liked Unless by Shields a lot.
    Larry's Party sounds a bit like Barney's Version. Have you read that? Or maybe it's just I've always somewhat mixed up those books. I've read Barney now, and quite enjoyed it, and would describe it somewhat how you've reviewed this book.(funny, absurd character that you wouldn't want for a friend, but reading about his exploits is fun).
    I have Larry's Party already, I'll just have to get to it this year.

  4. Great review! I have Larry's Party on Mount TBR and must get to it!


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