Carol Shields won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her novel The Stone Diaries. ”A friend told me, ‘I guess you know what the first line of your obituary will be!”’ And she laughs and laughs. For hers is not a sad story. Not altogether.
Carol Shields is dying.
”I’m afraid I’m a little weak,” she says, slowly pushing two wicker chairs together in her sunroom, bright this April morning in Victoria, Canada. ”Did they tell you I’ve got cancer?” They have, in far more dramatic fashion than Shields, 66, herself would ever allow. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 1998. And she’s lived far longer than her doctors predicted. She certainly did not expect to finish her new novel, Unless — a story of mothers and daughters and the unanswerable but still worthy question of what it means to be good — let alone to witness its warm reception. But now the cancer has metastasized, burrowing into her bones.
There were hard, angry days in 1998. ”You would think the intense experience of having a serious illness would drive one to the keyboard, but it was the opposite,” she told a Toronto audience at a Breast Cancer Awareness Month luncheon in 1999. ”Something, some creature, sat on my shoulder and whispered into my ear, ‘What is the point?”’ But there was this deadline for her collection of short stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival, that didn’t give a damn about her diagnosis. So she got back to work. ”I was glad I had something to do,” she says in retrospect. ”The weird thing about cancer is how your self-absorption level grows. But I had a job. You can’t just sit around weeping at this drop of fate.”
Shields has never been a fast writer. When her five children (four daughters and one son) were young, she simply had no time. A page took two days. But she wrote most of Unless in one wonderful rush of unexpected good health last summer. ”The day I finished it, I was so astonished I just wanted to run out into the street and give people money or offer to do their mending.”
Margaret Atwood, a fellow Canadian novelist, has said that people don’t always take her friend seriously because ”she’s cute, short, and a blonde.” And she is. She talks of mending and ironing and she heats up the milk in her guest’s mug before adding the coffee. But don’t underestimate her. ”I think Carol sometimes does a very good impression of being a nice housewife,” says her editor Christopher Potter. ”And she just isn’t. You just have to meet her for 10 minutes to know that she’s sharp and funny and irreverent. She just sort of represents areas we find hard to write about in novels and journalism.” Says Shields: ”I used to get the reviews about the superficial nature of these domestic novels — ‘women’s mag books,’ they called them. But I always knew women’s lives had value, and it was worth writing about them. I just thought, ‘Oh, these people don’t get it.”’
It’s time to leave her, and not because she has to get back to the business of being unwell. She and Don, her husband of 44 years, who sits in the sun on the front porch reading Unless for the first time, are meeting friends later for a curry buffet lunch. A grandchild, one of 10, left his toy engine in their car, and that must be returned. A friend is sick at a local nursing home, and they will bring her groceries. And there are novels that still need reading, so many good novels that have provided such real comfort as her body has confined her more and more to the sofa in front of a fire.