Larry’s Party

Reviewed: July 29, 2007
By: Carol Shields / read by R.H. Thompson
Publisher: BTC Audio Books
4 CDs, 5 hours, $35.00

Larry’s Party is fairly littered with mazes, real and figurative. This may be the reason why there is so much repetition in the story, so much time spent ruminating over events that we have already seen from one point of view, events encapsulated and reexamined as Larry Weller sorts his way through the maze of his life.

Larry was ambushed (pun intended) by mazes while on his honeymoon trip in England. An unremarkable young man, Larry had never really had his attention captured quite like that. His profession, an employee in a flower shop, had come about because the community college he attended sent him the wrong brochures. He had drifted into his love affair with Dorrie and, while they had intended to get married, that step had been hurried along when she found herself pregnant.

(This would have been in the 1970s, when having children out of wedlock was not something lifestyle columnists routinely did and wrote books about)

The marriage didn’t work. Dorrie was, in her own words, not grown up enough to be married, though she was grown up enough to become a successful business woman. Larry was trying to be a good father and husband but he was also creating his very first maze all around their house, instead of the simple, normal lawn she thought would be best. It all drove her nuts , and then came the back hoe and that was the end of the marriage.

Larry’s life is full of slightly disturbed women. Even before his marriage to Dorrie, we learn that Larry’s in a family plagued by unfortunate events. Embedded in Larry’s story is the tale of how his parents immigrated to Canada from England, a tale which has its roots in the evening that Larry’s grandmother died of food poisoning. Mrs. Weller’s improperly bottled green beans were the death of her mother-in-law. It was an accident, of course, but her father-in-law’s cries of “murderer” drove the young married couple from their native soil and planted them in Winnipeg.

Not unlike his creator, Larry spends a lot of time flitting back and forth between Canada and the USA, from Winnipeg to Chicago to Toronto. In the middle period he becomes a successful, sought after landscape designer specializing in mazes. He also has a second, apparently much more successful, marriage, at least until Beth becomes so wrapped up in her academic specialty (women and religion) that she decides to become a nun (not fully, but practically), moving to England and embracing celibacy with all the ardor with which she once embraced Larry.

Left alone by this turn of events, Larry, whose business is completely portable, decides to return to Canada, and settles in Toronto. He is fortunate to be living back in his own native land when encephalitis knocks him out and puts him in the hospital, unconscious, for several weeks.

Perhaps it is the sense of his own mortality that gives him the idea to have his party. Perhaps it is the coincidence of knowing that both his ex-wives are going to be in the city at the same time. He is prodded by his current lady friend, Charlotte, to bring them all together and see what happens. I’m not going to tell you about that. Listen to the book or read it and find out for yourself.

R.H. Thompson does a tremendous job reading this abridgment, capturing the congenial, loving, and slightly deprecating tone of voice that Shields uses to tell Larry’s story. The narrator is in Larry’s head and nowhere else during the entire novel. You are aware of the observer and commentator, but not in an annoying way at all. It’s like someone has sat down to tell you about a well loved friend.

What you don’t get from this BTC production is the sense of focus provided by the chapter titles, beginning with “15 minutes in the life of Larry Weller, 1977”; and carrying on through “Larry's Love, 1978”; “Larry's Folks, 1980”; “Larry Inc., 1988”; “Larry's Living Tissues, 1996”; and “Larry's Party 1997”. There are fifteen chapters in all, and a number of them back up to ruminate over the same history but with a different focus, depending on the chapter’s theme.

Shields died of cancer in 2003 and the city of Winnipeg recently announced that it would be creating a garden to honour the P. Gardens feature prominently in both The Stone Diaries and in this novel, and it is especially fitting that the centerpiece of this garden will be a maze.