Blasts from the Past: Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (1997)

Cover image for Larry's Party by Carol ShieldsThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I still remember the delight at hearing the news that the quietly brilliant Larry’s Party had won what was then known as the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) back in 1997, not to mention selling shedloads of it as a result.

Larry Weller’s story unfolds year by year, starting in 1977 when he mistakenly picks up an altogether smarter version of his own Harris tweed jacket, and culminating two decades later with the titular party at which his two ex-wives first meet. Larry is an average kind of guy; the only thing that really marks him out is his passion for mazes, a passion conceived at Hampton Court on honeymoon with his first wife. Despite his ordinariness he’s never dull. As each year is recounted, we’re privy to the shifts in his relationships with his family and friends, the amazed joyfulness of his love for both his wives, the pain of divorce and the changes in his work from florist to acclaimed maze-maker. The centrepiece of the concluding year is the dinner party at which the many threads of Larry’s life are satisfyingly pulled together. With a playful delight in everyday detail, Carol Shields’ novel builds a subtle and many-layered narrative of a life that many of us might recognize.

Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. Lovingly supported by her husband and their five children, she continued to work throughout her illness writing a biography of Jane Austen, a collection of short stories and her last novel, Unless, before she died in July 2003, aged just sixty-eight.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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22 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (1997)”

  1. I remember loving Larry’s Party too. It was a transitional time in my reading journey – after an exclusive diet of classic fiction and fantasy novels, I had recently discovered literary fiction (via Margaret Atwood) and this was one of those early novels that made me realise someone was writing books that felt like they were just for me! Who couldn’t love a man who is so enthusiastic about mazes?

    1. Absolutely! That’s a lovely reading memory. I so liked the way she portrayed an ordinary man leading an unremarkable life with such perception and affection.

  2. I wasn’t at all drawn in by the blurb of Larry’s Party, but read it as part of my project to read all past winners of the Women’s Prize. I was very pleasantly surprised!

    1. She captures what it is to live an unremarkable life but live it well, I think, rather like Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life although in a very different style.

  3. I’m terrible at consecrating any time to re-reading. But I remember enjoying Larry’s Party too, and its being the book that introduced me to Carol Shields’ work. I really should give it – and many other older reading pleasures, another go.

      1. I haven’t read Larry’s Party, but read The Stone Diaries years ago. I just loved it and set out to read as much good literary fiction as I could. Carol Shields was a brilliant observer of human relationships.

        1. She was, indeed. My first Shields was Happenstance, given to me by a rep when I was a bookseller. Telling the story of a marriage from both partners’ perspectives, it proved to be an excellent introduction to her clear-eyed view of relationships.

  4. I love this one too. Rereading her stories, recently, with Rebecca, we were both surprised to find a Dorrie in one of the stories, but it wasn’t the same Dorrie after all!

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