THE judges of the Orange Prize, open only to women novelists, last night extended a friendly hand to the opposite sex by giving this year's pounds 30,000 award to a funny and sympathetic account of an ordinary guy in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
Larry's Party by the Chicago-born but Canadian-resident novelist Carol Shields, portrays a prosperous but self-doubting garden designer whose life takes a new turning after a moment of enlightenment in the maze at Hampton Court.
Reviewing the book in The Independent, Penelope Lively called it "a brilliant fictional reflection on what it may be like to be a man in the late 20th century". Male critics concurred. Choosing Larry's Party as a Book of the Year, also in The Independent, television scriptwriter Andrew Davies found it "shimmeringly vivid" and - like the mazes its hero designs - "very skilfully patterned".
Carol Shields was 7-2 second favourite to win the prize, just behind Pauline Melville's Whitbread-winning first novel The Ventriloquist's Tale. She has lived for many years in Winnipeg, where she is chancellor of the university. Born in 1935, she did not achieve widespread success on both sides of the Atlantic until the early 1990s. After that she rapidly rose to prominence with novels such as Happenstance (which tells the same story from a male and female point of view), The Republic of Love and The Stone Diaries, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
Supported by the mobile-phone group but with its prize-money funded by an anonymous American benefactor, the Orange Prize was first awarded in 1996 after hostile press attention had deterred its original sponsor, Mitsubishi of Japan. It has courted controversy both with its gender restriction and by its apparent favouring of North American over British writers. Only one British author, Pauline Melville, appears on this year's shortlist. Shields's award represents a second successive Canadian triumph, following last year's victory for Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels.
An extract from `Larry's Party':
TURNING 40 opened a seam of panic in Larry Weller, and he had to admit, sadly, that there was nothing remarkable in this.
A fortieth birthday is twinned with anxiety, with mortal dread, it's to be expected, it's par for the course, at least among Larry's acquaintances or from what he glimpses on the commercials he sees on TV, which seem differently targeted for the post-forties, more sincerely sorry that "you out there" must be informed about the hazards of heart disease or haemorrhoids or depression triggers.
Forty is on the side of the wealthy and the ailing - Larry sometimes burns with the shame of having "done well" - and the disequilibrium 40 brings is all too well marked on the psychological road map; you shrug when it comes along, shrug and suffer in the shambling morning light and wait for your brain to absorb its juices.
Larry's Party by Carol Shields is published in paperback this week by Fourth Estate. The other shortlisted titles were Pauline Melville's The Ventriloquist's Tale (Bloomsbury), Deirdre Purcell's Love Like Hate Adore (Pan), Kirsten Bakis's Lives of the Monster Dogs (Sceptre), Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant (Fourth Estate) and Anita Shreve's The Weight of Water (Little, Brown).
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