Carol Shields’s novels have been lauded for their deft exploration of marriage, parenthood, and the battle between the sexes. Shields was a perceptive, and sometimes humorous, observer of social trends whose work is more serious in tone than it may initially appear. “Because she’s a comic writer and genuinely funny, early on, she was put in the ‘sweet’ box, where she does not belong,” Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once said. “The fact is, there’s a dark thread in everything she writes.” Critics have often commented on Shields’s descriptive prose, comparing her work with that of British novelist A. S. Byatt and Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro.
The author was born Carol Warner on June 2, 1935, in Oak Park, Illinois, a prosperous suburb of Chicago which is also the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. Her father managed a candy factory, and her mother was a schoolteacher. The author has described her childhood as bookish and happy. As a student at Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana, she was participating in a study abroad program in England when she met Canadian engineering student Donald Shields. They were married in 1957, six weeks after her college graduation. A week after their wedding, Shields followed her husband to Canada, never to live in the United States again.
While her husband pursued an academic career, ultimately becoming a professor of engineering at the University of Manitoba, Shields was a devoted wife and mother. She gave birth to five children within a span of ten years. While her children were in school, Shields kept busy, writing poetry and fiction. During this time she studied at the University of Ottawa, where she received an M.A. Her thesis was on nineteenth century writer Susanna Moodie. Moodie was an Englishwoman who, like Shields, established her literary career after emigrating to Canada.
Small Ceremonies, Shields’s first novel, was published in 1976, when she was forty. Her early books, which portrayed ordinary people in everyday situations, gained a popular following in Canada, but critics generally dismissed her work as too naturalistic. It was not until her fifth book, Swann, that Shields began to draw attention from outside Canada. With this novel, she experimented with form by using four different voices to tell the story. Swann, which Shields said was her favorite book, depicts a scholar’s quest to establish the reputation of an obscure woman poet as an overlooked genius.
Shields experimented again when writing The Republic of Love, emulating the structure of a romance novel. The book that firmly cemented her reputation with critics around the world was The Stone Diaries. Written in the first and third person, this book is the fictional biography of a woman whose life spanned eight decades and who lived in both Canada and the United States. With this groundbreaking novel, Shields won acclaim for her deft examination of loneliness and lost opportunities and for writing movingly about the lives that women lead. The Stone Diaries was lauded for its exploration of the relationships among fiction, biography, and autobiography. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the Canadian Governor-General’s Award. It was also short-listed for Britain’s Booker Prize.
After the publication of The Stone Diaries, Shields was named chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She had been teaching literature courses for years at the University of Manitoba. She found time to write despite a hectic schedule. Her next novel, Larry’s Party, grappled with, as she put it, “what life was like for a man in the second half of the 20th century.” Larry’s Party won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States and the Orange Prize for Fiction in Britain. In 2000, the government of France appointed Shields a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Shortly after Larry’s Party was published, Shields was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation, but the cancer did not respond to treatment. Faced with the fatal nature of her disease, Shields wrote what she knew would be her final book, Unless, which documents a year in the life of a writer and deals more directly with loss, suffering, and unhappiness than any of her previous books.
Shields said that she was grateful she was able to live in Winnipeg during the early years of her writing career, a city that kept her isolated from the pressures of book publishing. In 1999 she and her husband relocated to Victoria, British Columbia. She died there in 2003.