#LiteraryWives: Happenstance by Carol Shields

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

Happenstance by Carol Shields

Goodreads synopsis: These two unique novels tell the stories of Jack and Brenda Bowman during a rare week apart in their many years of marriage. Jack is at home coping with domestic crises and two uncouth adolescents, while immobilized by self-doubt and questioning his worth as a historian. Brenda, travelling alone for the first time, is in a strange city grappling with an array of emotions and toying with the idea of an affair.

Let me start by saying that Happenstance is different from most of our Literary Wives books in that Brenda and Jack actually have a good marriage. (Hooray!) This is not to say that everything is perfect in their world, and that they don’t have doubts, and that they are always madly in love. But they are able to work through their bad days, think of each other with affection more times than not, and support each other’s individual pursuits.

She loved Jack, she trusted him. She knew all the creases and odours of his body. She was grateful and a little awed by his fidelity; many of the couples she and Jack knew were unfaithful to each other. But not them.

I started with Brenda’s novel and read Jack’s perspective second. In hindsight, it might have been better to read them the other way around – I loved reading about Brenda so much that Jack just couldn’t hold my interest in the same way. Rest assured, however, that the writing is fabulous. I reveled in the details.

The other problem with Jack’s view, in respect to Literary Wives, is that it didn’t give me a lot of further insight into Brenda’s experience of being a wife, besides confirmation of anything we have already gleaned from Brenda. Jack seemed to feel overwhelmed without Brenda. He wasn’t sure how to handle the kids, their daughter had to prepare supper and ‘step in’ for Brenda, and he had no one with whom to talk through his work-related problems. In other words, like so many spouses, Jack doesn’t fully appreciate Brenda until she’s not around to do all the things he doesn’t even know she does.

However, I didn’t get the sense that Brenda was feeling taken for granted. She worried about being away – how everyone would manage without her – but, in my experience, that’s just normal mom-guilt. I don’t know many mothers who don’t experience it. Jack supported her trip to Philly – her guilt and anxiety over it did not seem to come from Jack.

She recalled that it had been Jack’s idea in the first place that she go. He had been the one to suggest it, and it was he who finally persuaded her that it would be a valuable experience.

Brenda feels as though her life is “out of joint with the times”. Like all the other women are doing bigger and better things, are more worldly, more in tune with their bodies. This sounds so familiar to me – will this ever change? Similarly, Brenda comments about the fact that “we forget to stop now and then and just look” and that “we’re afraid of silence… We feel we have to be communicating from morning to night”.

What lingered most in my mind after reading this book is the timelessness of high marital expectations. We romanticize it – and it is almost always a disappointment. But we still do it. Judging by the books I’ve read, we seem to have been doing this for a long time, and will probably continue to do it well into the future – just with updated expectations. (I loved reading about the time-specific hopes for marriage.)

Married! it was another state of being, a state that was sealed like an envelope in its inviolability. The state of marriage was secret and safe, a circle of charmed light beyond the horizon of the easily capsized now.

It was the domesticity of the newly married that enchanted her, its crisp, glazed magazine aura, rising out of the whiteness of weddings and opening like a play onto rooms paved with Armstrong flooring. Basket chairs with corduroy cushions. Café curtains on brass rods; Brenda, in those days, sometimes dreamed about café curtains. And what else? A Duncan Phyfe coffee table in front of the couch; a white padded wedding album brought out for visitors to see. Carpeting on the stairs, and a staggering of small, framed flower prints. In the bedroom: coloured sheets, a dust ruffle, perhaps a canopy. Brightly toned towels in the bathroom, stacked on open shelves – such riches – and little cakes of scented soap in a glass apothecary jar. She wanted an organized linen cupboard. She wanted to plunge with a brave face into low-budget entertaining, to put the whole of her heart into steaming casseroles of beef Stroganoff and, for dessert, frozen lemon pie with graham cracker crust. She wanted it all, all of it: a vacuum cleaner with a set of attachments, a spice rack of carved red maple, a doorbell that chimed – all of it.

I don’t remember dreaming so much about the decor or the recipes, and I certainly did not dream about a vacuum with attachments, but I did dream about babies and warm family fuzziness. What about you? Did you dream about marriage? What did it entail? 


Next Literary Wives: December 2, 2019 – The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher – Join us!

26 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: Happenstance by Carol Shields

  1. madamebibilophile says:

    I read this ages ago and I’ve forgotten practically everything about it, but I do remember I enjoyed it. I’d like to re-read it and your review has encouraged me further – I think I must have been a bit young for it the first time round!

    • Naomi says:

      I can definitely see me not enjoying this as much as a youngster. As an old, married woman a lot of it rang so true for me, even all these years after the book was published!

  2. whatmeread says:

    We certainly all had different views of this book! Eva was bored by Brenda’s section and liked Jack’s. For you, it was the other way around. I thought both of them were interesting at times and dragged at times and centered a little too much on the trivial. But it was nice to have the book be about a good marriage and not sink into a cliche like an affair.

    I like your comments about romanticizing marriage. I don’t remember dreaming about appliances, picket fences, or babies (I got married at 45), but I thought about closeness and companionship. Deluded again!

  3. wadholloway says:

    I enjoy reading your reflections on Literary Wives. Since my own marriage broke up for the first time a quarter century ago, we have had retries, counselling, endless discussions, another marriage in my case, and we’re still good friends (live in each others’ pockets really). So marriage is something I devote a lot of thought to. We were so broke at the beginning though and for so many years, and with kids straight away, I’m not sure she ever thought much about appliances! (But as I’ve proved over and over, what would i know).

  4. Karissa says:

    That quote reminds me of how exciting I found it to have matching cups and plates in the cupboard after our wedding! I do still fantasize about one day living somewhere with an organized linen cupboard…This book sounds really interesting and I like that it seems to show an overall happy marriage.

  5. The Paperback Princess says:

    The writing *was* good, I will give it that. Funny how we came at this novel from opposite ends. It struck me that even though Brenda’s novel takes place in a professional setting and Jack’s is in the domestic sphere, Jack’s portion is still taken up so much with his work.
    I also enjoyed the time-specific ideas about marriage, the look at regular family life in 1978. But something about this one just didn’t full form for me. Maybe I haven’t been married long enough – we’re fully in the small children part of our lives. There isn’t any time to stop and think about contentedness!

    • Naomi says:

      That really could be it. I remember those years – they were filled with nothing but babies! It wasn’t until the last one was about 3 years old that I felt I could start thinking about myself again.

  6. annelogan17 says:

    hahaha dreaming of casseroles!!!! Vacuums with attachments! LOL

    I know lots of women like this, and yes I do enjoy cooking, but I can’t say I dreamed of being married, or cleaning. I really like the sound of this book ( i guess I always do when it comes to marriages) but like Brenda, I worry about how the family will manage without me when I’m gone (which is rare) but my husband is always so supportive of me taking time out for my self, mainly because he feels guilty about all the time he has to travel and work late haha

    • Naomi says:

      I feel the same way whenever I’m gone (which is, like you, rare). Sometimes even for a few hours or half a day! Are they going to remember to take the dog out? Eat veggies with their supper? Empty the dishwasher? But, in the long run, how much do these things really matter? Why do we do this to ourselves? Ha!

  7. buriedinprint says:

    When I checked my notes, I wondered whether there would be more quotations from Brenda’s section or Jack’s, thinking it would be Brenda’s (but it wasn’t)! Like Laila, this is one that I should reread.

    When I was a teenager, I assumed that I would marry and have children, but I don’t think I really thought about it, it was just something that was supposed to happen. One thing that I definitely did fantasize about, though, was being able to make decisions about how things were done in my own space/home. I had opinions! LOL So that if I didn’t want to vacuum, I didn’t have to (and, often, I didn’t – and now the floors do not have carpets and the vacuum has been unused for so long we’re thinking it should go in for service/resuscitation)!

  8. The Cue Card says:

    Marriage isn’t easy! But it sounds like these two work through it. I’d like to read another book of Carol Shields since I really liked Stone Diaries.

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