No 475 Larry’s Party by Carol Shields Book 13 of #20booksofsummer20

“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?”                                                  Talking Heads ‘Once in a Lifetime’

Larry Weller is an ordinary man who is always wondering how he got to where he is.


Born in 1950, Larry is a shy, unassuming boy who becomes a shy unassuming man. He works as a floral designer and lives with his parents until the age of 26, when his girlfriend Dorrie gets pregnant. It is on their honeymoon to England that Larry finds what will be the one extraordinary thing in his life. On a visit to Hampton Court, Larry becomes lost in the maze and it triggers an epiphany and awakens a lifelong passion for mazes.

He has never been able to identify what happened to him during the hour he wandered lost and dazed and separated from the others, but he remembers he felt a joyous rising of spirits that was related in some way to the self’s dimpled plasticity. He could move beyond what he was, the puzzling hedges seemed to announce; he could become someone other than Larry Weller…a man of limited imagination and few choices.

This passion will be his constant in life – through two marriages, estrangement from his son, the loss of his parents, serious illness – his fascination with hedged labyrinths remains with him, and he becomes an internationally recognised maze designer for wealthy patrons.

Structurally, Larry’s Party is something of a maze itself. Shields has always been a shrewd manipulator of structure, playing with the idea of a conventional storyline to depict instead a narrative that cannot be separated from the form in which it is presented. Larry’s Party is no exception, with each chapter exploring an aspect of Larry’s life – his relationship with his son, his clothes, his parents and even his name. Each chapter could be read on its own merits and out of context as Shields allows the story to repeat itself, double back and then take a new turn.


It is a wonderful exercise in storytelling, one that creates a rich tapestry with the threads of Larry’s life and preoccupations. Shields doesn’t give up the overarching pattern until the end and, like the mazes that Larry so loves, the overall pattern of his life can only be viewed from above.

Larry may be an unremarkable man, but he transcends any sense of banality to become an everyman. He is constantly questioning, striving, and hoping to be a better person. He is always searching for something he feels is missing in his life, searching for the centre of his own personal maze. This character trait is evident in all his relationships, particularly with the women he loves.

Despite being told from Larry’s point of view, women are at the heart of the novel, which is apt given the questions of equality and feminism that arise throughout the years of Larry’s life. There is his first love and mother of his son, Dorrie, a determined, focused businesswoman. Both agree that they married too young and too quickly and have remained on good terms, even when Larry remarries the formidable Beth.

Younger and more intellectual than Larry, Beth is writing a doctoral thesis on woman saints (another of the unusual interests that pepper Carol Shield’s novels) but her university career soon takes precedence over their marriage. Larry’s sister Midge is always there in the background of his life, the person he turns to repeatedly for advice and reassurance.

By exploring life through Larry’s eyes, the reader explores all aspects of existence. Shields employs a warmly ironic tone and is incredibly skilled at packing all of life into one story. There are vignettes here that could be novels in their own right – the death of Larry’s grandmother that led to his parents immigrating to Canada and his sister’s first marriage to a gay man who later died of AIDS – both perfectly and succinctly presented to tantalise and satisfy.

Small moments become as important as life-changing ones emphasising the mystery of life and the hope required to navigate it.

They’re moving, they’re breathing, they’re practising rituals of their own tentative invention and Larry’s sucking it up. His mother’s gorgeous bloom of guilt, his father’s stoic heart, his sister’s brilliant jets of anger, even the alternate sharpness and slack of his wife’s domestic habits – these burn around him, a ring of fluorescence, through the zone between such vividness and the plan familiar faces around the table seems too narrow to enter. He’s thirty years old for Chrissake, old enough to know that he can’t know everything.

Larry’s Party builds to a wonderful conclusion as, approaching his fiftieth birthday, Larry and his current lover Charlotte, throw a dinner party to celebrate the coincidence of both of Larry’s ex-wives visiting Toronto on the same weekend. It is contrived, certainly, but that contrivance can be forgiven, as it is such a wonderful set piece, perfectly capturing the chaos of drunken dinner party conversation. As the guests debate ‘what it’s like being a man in the last days of the 20th century’, Larry finds the centre to the maze of his life and it is not where he expected it to be.

Delightful and insightful, Larry’s Party is another warm, witty and heartfelt exploration of the human condition from a writer who is fast becoming one of my favourite authors.

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

21 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I loved this one too. Thanks for triggering some happy reading memories, Cathy. I can recommend The Republic of Love if you haven’t already read it. One of Shields’ lesser known novels but probably my favourite.


  2. I thought I knew what this book is about, but no, I didn’t. So intriguing. Might be a good antidote for a recent novel I read which had a dinner party scene that didn’t resonate with me at all.


  3. This was one of my first novels by Shields and I remember loving it. I have never forgotten that dinner party — she is so good at writing scenes of people talking over each other. I’ve been reading a lot of her work this year for buddy reads with Buried in Print, and now I really want to reread Larry’s Party before I cast my vote in the Women’s Prize’s best of the best poll.


  4. Oh thanks for drawing attention to this, with its explorations of relationships within symbolic mazes. As someone who has been an on and off obsessive with mazes and labyrinths since the seventies, along with their mythological and psychological associations, I’ve been on the lookout for a decent novel using them as a plot strand. I had some dealings in the 70s with real life professional maze designer Adrian Fisher so would be intrigued to see how much or little Larry has owed to him as a model. And I certainly recognise the origins of three of the maze patterns in the illustration you feature!


  5. I have never read any Carol Shields, despite the urgings of friends. I don’t know why, but their descriptions of her books never grabbed me. I like the sound of this one, though. I might pop it onto my library wishlist.


  6. I enjoyed this too when I read it, a long long time ago. I like how you discussed its structure, and the maze motif. Carol Shields died too young. I read quite a few of her books but not her last one or two which I will rectify one day.


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