Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields

Here’s what I noticed within two months of moving to Dublin: People here are considerably less angsty than Americans about anything identity related. Although I’m asserting this as an outsider, when you come from a place that necessitates pigeon-holing its citizens—for political reasons, mostly—less emphasis on categorizing sings to me. America: the land of Buzzfeed quizzes that don’t even make any sense! (What Country Should You Live In?/Which U.S. President Are You?/Which Super Power Should You Actually Have?) Ireland: the place where everything is “just grand”!

Ya Sure Ya Betcha
Ya Sure Ya Betcha

Obviously, a mere three years into our Irish domicile, I’m not a true Irishwoman (and I’m not so naïve as to think I ever will be), so my thoughts on Ireland are filtered through that lens. But as an American, I do have insight into my country’s obsession with identity politics. The Europeans I know are baffled by Americans’ fascination with genealogy and their supposed claim to a bit of Ireland, Sweden, or Germany. The idea of a “soccer mom” is met with a bit of a laugh. And the fact that the US welcomes, really, only two political parties and that most people choose between them? That is just unfathomable! As a whole, we’re loud, and we like to announce our identity in our homes, our food choices, and just about anything else. (Hey, I do love America a whole bunch. #youtakethegoodyoutakethebad)

A few years ago, just as I was beginning to find my place in Ireland, I wrote an essay for The Curator about the novel Annie Dunne by Sebastian Barry. I marveled at the beauty in a piece of fiction that doesn’t rely on whiz-bang plot to move it forward and concluded that “perhaps a book – and a life – is not simply about the story, but also about how it’s told.” The longer I live in Ireland, I associate this type of book with the country. It’s a little bit how I feel about the scenery. With the pointy and extreme landscapes of my childhood forever informing any comparisons, I liken my experience with Annie Dunne to the first time I sat atop Bray Head: overpowering, yet gentle. This is not Mt. Rainier, just as Annie Dunne is not East of Eden, with all its beautiful drama and tragedy. I’m not sure which I prefer, but the Irish landscape leaves me pondering the subtleties of beauty a bit more.


Subtle and Not-So Subtle

Which is why I can now articulate why my favorite book is Carol Shields’ Small Ceremonies. If you’ve never read it, you still may have read her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries, but this compact novel—her first—is my favorite. Small Ceremonies was published in 1976, the year after I was born. So while the bulk of my childhood was a 1980s childhood, I feel a certain closeness to the scene that Shields presents. Even though I can identify with protagonist Judith Gill—40-year-old wife, mother, biographer—and her family better than a novel set in 16th century England, it is not just the era that presents me with a contented ease. No, it’s something more—when I read Small Ceremonies, I see a small glow, not a loud firework; the same precise, quiet, and careful language as found in Annie Dunne.

Here’s a musical version of “quiet and careful.”  And if you haven’t seen Once, you really must.

But I realized as I re-read this book for perhaps the tenth time, that by page 50, a substantial amount of information and description had already occurred. I was surprised because my reading felt slow and meandering. I was enjoying each word instead of deciphering motives, reasons for plot points, and crazy turns of phrases. It is sensible. Shields’ use of language is beautiful, just as Barry’s. It is precise, but not scientific. It is poetic, but not extravagant. She describes her teenage daughter, Meredith, and her friend: “…[they] rock back and forth between the rhythm of their misunderstandings; apology and forgiveness are their coinage…They interpret each other until their separate experiences hang in exhausted shreds.” And Judith’s subterfuge of another hopeful novelist’s plot: “The bones of my stolen plot stuck me out everywhere like great evil-gleaming knobs, accusing me, charging me.” Her words remind me of those in Annie Dunne, but the plot is surprisingly fast-paced. And, deceptively, even though Shields doesn’t waste words, there is a neutrality to her descriptions. They are timeless. Nothing is out-of-control crazy. Listen, it was a different time, as evinced by this analysis of a 1976 Good Housekeeping.

If Judith Gill Instagrammed. #justleftovers
If Judith Gill Instagrammed. #justleftovers

This is the world Judith inhabits, but she seems to be above it all. Shields hints at the ways we box people in: the newspaper columnist who writes “a quirky bittersweet saga of motherhood,” the party guest who describes “…nouveaus [and their] plastic-lined swimming pool[s].” Yet Judith observes it all. Seemingly unconcerned with which box she occupies, she would not be Instagramming her meals like her contemporaries—in an attempt to pitch a stake in an identifying box—if she lived in 2014. Her life is “just normal.” That’s a phrase I’ve used a lot lately. No, I don’t want to go to a church that asks me to brainstorm ideas with my pew mates. How about “just normal”? When my children started school in Ireland, did we need to make a special trip to purchase five pocketed folders (green for homework, blue for in-school work, yellow for “writing workshop”)? The correct brand of Number 2 pencil? What about 15 rolls of paper towels and red, green, and purple Sharpie markers? No, because it’s “just normal,” and they use regular copy books and handwriting pens. “Just normal” is kind of nice. Shields doesn’t trot out an angsty analysis of women’s roles, although undoubtedly these debates were firing and pinging at the time she was writing Small Ceremonies. Instead, she notes—rather matter-of-factly—what many view as universal truths of motherhood, of womanhood. “Husband, children, they are not so much witnessed as perceived, flat leaves which grow absently from a stalk in my head, each fitting into the next, all their curving edges perfect. So far, so far. It seems they require someone, me, to watch them; otherwise they would float apart and disintegrate.” It’s as if she’s conveying that a mother’s centrality to a family unit is both overpowering and beautiful all at once. It just is.

Shields’ words are careful and cautious. I don’t mean that she holds back. Rather, she is controlled and concise. Every word counts. But unlike Annie Dunne, Small Ceremonies is full of action. We have a surprise pregnancy, a hidden identity, a year in England remembered, the usual family squabbles, and some copyright issues. Not to mention the ruminations on what constitutes a fulfilled life. Yet everything about this novel is quietly striking; the events are almost muted. Nothing is frenetic. Rather, the plot moves seamlessly from action to contemplation and the reader is lulled into its melody. When I think of Judith Gill, I’m reminded of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings: Very subtle in their color choice, but a completely spectacular package overall. After all, Shields clothes Judith in a “long apricot crepe skirt,” or “fawn slacks or [her] bronze corduroy skirt.” I can’t even picture those outfits! Something tells me that even if she were transported to 2014, Judith would not be gallivanting around in Hunter rain boots (even when it’s not raining) and skinny jeans, sharing posed photos on her “lifestyle” blog.

Judith shuns reinvention, but she embraces the evolution of a life. Carol Shields died of breast cancer in 2003, the year my daughter was born. I was heartbroken when I learned of this, for Carol Shields provided me not only with a book to call “my favorite,” but a heroine who seemed to “have it all” while understanding that “all” is something that can’t be prescribed a label or identity.

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