The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
My respect for the Pulitzer Prize has dropped a notch, because this 1995 winner is one of the dullest, slowest books I have ever read. Theoretically it is the story of Daisy Goodwill, since it opens with her birth and closes with her death. But you get to the end and don’t really know her at all.
The story opens with Daisy’s mother-to-be cooking alone in the kitchen. She is overweight and apparently doesn’t know she is pregnant when she starts having labor pains. The reader senses that tragedy is about to happen but instead the story detours outside to a neighbor hanging up laundry. This would be fine if the neighbor heard screams from the kitchen and quickly comes to the rescue. But no. the story dawdles with the neighbor’s internal monologue for a few pages. By the time the story returns to the kitchen the woman has died and the neighbor presents a baby girl to the unsuspecting father as he returns home from work.
This same sleight of hand continues throughout the book: an action scene is set up and then abandoned for some internal monologue by some barely related character and by the time the story returns to Daisy’s story the action is over and reported second hand.
I actually thought we might be getting to Daisy’s story when as young widow she takes a train trip back to Canada where she spent her childhood. She is going to visit the son of the neighbor who raised her. There’s a hint of romance coming and sparks fly as soon as she steps off the train. But no, we don’t get to read their conversation or see them fall in love. The story fast forwards to a wedding announcement and then suddenly she is a mother of three living the 1950s perfect housewife myth.
We have only vague hints of her discontent before her husband dies and Daisy takes over his gardening column. Although we sense this is her true calling, her real satisfaction, we only get hints of this from letters others write, not from Daisy herself. The book avoids ever showing her actually at work. All action is at arms length. An unmarried pregnant niece moves in and we get to see the niece remodeling a room, and then we hear, via correspondence from Daisy’s daughter at college, that Daisy wants the niece to keep the child. But we almost never hear from Daisy.
Finally, at the end of the book, when Daisy is an old woman, we get to read a real interaction. A minister confesses to her and she gives him good advice and for one brief moment we see this woman who has been the center of the whole book. Just a few sentences and oops, revealed too much, the window closes and Daisy feigns sleep so the minister will leave.
I detest internal monologues, I love action. Show, don’t tell. But over and over again this book allows other characters to tell what happens instead of just letting the reader see for themselves.