Whenever I open a book by Carol Shields, I prepare myself to walk into a folksy Midwest version of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, starring sassy old biddies who turn scrapbooking a full-contact sport.
I’m not sure where I got the idea that she writes Hot Flash Fiction, but I’m always wrong, and I’ve never been more pleasantly surprised by a book than I was by her 1994 novel The Republic of Love.
Bits of the lives of the two main characters, Fay and Tom, are revealed in alternating chapters. Fay is a folklorist with an emphasis in mermaid-ology, who has recently broken up with another in a long line of longterm boyfriends. She wakes up one day and realizes she doesn’t love Peter anymore, and ends things amicably. She relishes the idea of making just a single serving of toast.
Tom, a popular third-shift DJ, half-assed runner, frequent cafe diner, is thrice divorced, which he blames on a string of bad luck. He’s been attending newly single classes for two years.
The two travel in barely connected social circles. In fact, Fay’s exboyfriend Peter was once married to Fritzi, the woman Tom’s former wife’s husband left her for. Exactly: Winnipeg as an incest-seasoned dating pool.
They don’t meet and fall in love. They meet, eventually, and then just are in love. Tom makes a grand gesture and Fay counters with her own. Unfortunately, this happens with too many pages left in the book for a reader to get too comfortable with the hearts and flowers.
Nonetheless, this thing the quintessential dopey-grin love story. It’s funny, it’s real, and it is cute without being cutesy.
Shields created such wholly likable characters in this story in a way that is so tricky and Charles Baxter-ian to do. Fay and Tom aren’t annoyingly anything or self-righteous, or condescending. They are just two super nice moderately attractive people with cool hobbies that I got pretty rah! rah! about — so much so that I felt personally invested in the outcome of their story.
There is something about the phrase “love story,” and especially admitting to loving a love story, that feels like it should be quantified or ironic. This is something Shields seems aware of:
But Fay’s noticed something she’s never noticed before. That love is not, anywhere, taken seriously. It’s not respected. It’s the one thing in the world everyone wants — she’s convinced of that — but for some reason people are obliged to pretend that love is trifling and foolish. … We pretend it’s not there, the thunderous passions that enter a life and alter its course. Love belongs in an amateur operetta, on the inside of a jokey greeting card, or in the annals of an old-fashioned poetry society. … It’s womanish, it’s embarrassing, something to jeer at, something for jerks. Just a love story, people say about a book they happen to be reading, or caught reading.”