The women of “The Stone Diaries,” like the women in Shields’s other novels, are average students, flustered housewives, ornery aunts, a garden columnist. They meet for lunch, instigate romantic affairs, suffer miscarriages, receive bad haircuts, carry on too much at parties, gain weight, resent their children, travel to distant continents. In the face of ongoing hardship imposed by a society that denies them agency, and in spite of men who succeed in usurping their desires, they make choices each day about how to live. Then, as now, there has never been anything “ordinary” about those choices.
Carol Ann Warner came to a literary career later in life; she married Donald Shields at 22 and spent the early years of their marriage raising their five children, writing in the small snatches of time she could claim. Her first novel, “Small Ceremonies,” was published in 1976, when she was in her early 40s. She went on to publish nine more novels, five story collections, three poetry collections, several plays and a biography of Jane Austen.
Another writer might have felt compelled to avoid the domestic realm in her fiction, but Shields understood it is a sphere rife with conflict and dramatic potential. “Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass,” from the collection “Various Miracles” (1985), opens with the complaints of Mrs. Turner’s neighbors (she doesn’t retrieve the lawn clippings) and some teenage girls walking by, who are disgusted by the “lapped, striated flesh on her upper thighs” exposed by the shorts she wears as she mows. Shields fills in Mrs. Turner’s story: a year in New York, when she worked as an usherette at a movie palace; the adoration of her late husband; the poem she inspired that defined a poet’s career. As Mrs. Turner mows her yard, she waves to her neighbors, to the teenage girls, oblivious to their cruelty: “All she’s done is live her life.”
In another story, “Hazel,” the titular woman, prematurely widowed, takes a job demonstrating cookware in department stores. Hazel doesn’t need a paycheck — her husband left her with the means to live out the rest of her life, modestly — but she appreciates the routine the job imposes on her days, and enjoys a burgeoning friendship with her co-worker Peter. After months of julienning root vegetables, preparing omelets in nonstick skillets and earning the approval of her employer, she reaches a tempting epiphany, the “conviction that her life was going to be possible after all.” But the idea spoils quickly; Hazel can’t convince herself she has control over her life: “No one has that kind of power, no one.” Instead, she finds satisfaction in the small changes she has set in motion and the detached sense of possibility, of randomness, that accompany them: “Her whole life is an accident, and by accident she has blundered into the heart of it.”
In 2002, the year before her death, Shields was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Throughout the conversation, Shields is stoic but sharp, and offers frank observations about losing her religious faith, enduring breast cancer and approaching the end of her life. It’s profoundly moving. In the last minutes of the episode, Gross asks Shields how she hopes she will be remembered.