Man or manikin

LARRY'S PARTY by Carol Shields Fourth Estate pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Carol Shields is determined to write about happiness, how ordinary people stumble after it and fall into it. This is a bold undertaking, as Tolstoy and others have pointed out. What a pity that Shields muffs it, and ends up dishing out spoonfuls of Saccharine gloop. After a while you begin longing for another of those reassuring tales of serial killing and drug abuse so fashionable right now.

Shields' hero Larry starts off like many young men: shy, insecure, unsure of himself with girls, potentially interesting and sweet and nice. What goes wrong for him is that he has to carry his author's freight of wishes for the well-being of that endangered species, the white man in North America. Under the pressure of her determination to prove that some women can appreciate men (not all women are feminist harpies, you know) poor Larry collapses as a character. One minute he's Everyman, the next he's working-class hero, and the next he's, gosh, just that local kid on the block.

True to the American Dream, he rises from poverty and obscurity to fame and wealth, garnering a couple of wives along the way but never losing his ideals of true love. He's also a wonderful lover. Perhaps he's the answer to Freud's question, what do women want? Male readers have sometimes complained that women writers can't do men. They rose up en masse, for example, about George Eliot's Ladislaw, unable to understand what a splendid gel like Dorothea could see in such a soppy, boyish chap. The point was: Ladislaw listened to what women said. That's what some women want. Larry does it too. He's so sensitive to the words of women that he even obeys them. Early on in the novel, his fiancee Dorrie counsels him not to go to the bar for a few beers every evening after work, as she fears drink will destroy his brain cells. Larry immediately switches to cappuccino. Later, we're informed that he doesn't fall asleep after making love. No, he lies in bed with his second wife, Beth, and talks to her for over an hour every night.

He's a paragon, you see. He's an innocent abroad. He's the prince in the fairytale, the one who leaves home in search of the awfully big adventure only to find that true love was there right under his nose all along. It is a compelling myth, but one rammed too pointedly down our throats. The end of the book is impossibly sweet, which is a pity, because on the way Shields offers plenty of enjoyable apercus, neat bits of dialogue, clever vignettes of domestic life.

The storyline concerns Larry's rise from assistant in a Winnipeg flower shop to internationally known designer and maker of garden mazes. He first comes across mazes on his honeymoon with Dorrie in England, where they visit Hampton Court. Lost and enchanted, Larry finds the symbol for his life's looping journey. Shields is fond of symbols (mermaids in The Republic of Love, for example, alerted us to the heroine's potential unreliability) but perhaps she works this one a little too hard. Nonetheless, the information she gives on hedges and shrubs will fascinate any gardening readers, as will all the instructions about flower arrangement.

Shields does often come across as an expert, a superior kind of agony aunt or counsellor imparting nuggets of wisdom: "To get better. To live. To grow up. To be like everyone else. Isn't that what we all want in the end?" She celebrates "the dumb sweetness of mothers". She points out how to recognise those dangerous creatures, feminists, who wreck men's lives. In earlier times they came clad in dungarees and boots, with cropped hair, horns and tails. But now, cunning beasts, they disguise themselves as academics in designer clothes. When you see an intellectual woman in a silk suit, better duck. Lucky Larry finally escapes from the clutches of his second wife Beth (she is rude about his penis and sulks when he, not she, receives a research grant), fights off the attentions of his middle-aged girlfriend, and realises that it was the girl next door he loved all along.

I got the impression that Shields was using Larry as a dressmaker's dummy or a doll, fitting him with a variety of costumes to try out her ideas on maleness. She fusses over him, tweaking and twiddling. Then she strips him, to show us what he's like underneath. Is this really what men want? Perhaps it's up to the male readers of this novel to answer that one.