Friday, June 29, 2007

A Memoir of Friendship by Howard and Shields

The thing about a book of letters is that it's usually going to end with someone dying. And perhaps there is no better metaphor for the death of a writer than the blank page which follows the end of her text. That that writer's voice has been inside your head for 400+ pages at her most natural and free will only have that page's silence resound. This week reading A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard, I had the same problem I had with Decca. Both were big books I was intending to read in in bits and morsals but somehow the chronology, the voices, the spirit proved too sweeping and I was entranced. Reading became a race to an ending I knew very well would be a sad one, but the story was too good to take slowly. And that one blank page could be so devastating is certainly a testament to what came before it.

For nearly thirty years Blanche Howard and Carol Shields exchanged letters, beginning in 1975 when Shields wrote seeking advice on a book contract from the more experienced novelist Howard. Of course both women had a particular flair for the written word, and their relationship grew around such commonalities, including their love of books, their interest in CanLit in particular, feminism, politics, marriage and family. As the letters progress, the women become grandmothers, never stop being mothers, discuss aging, seek "the meaning of life", exchange book reccomendations. Typewriting, to PCs, to email. Shields comes to achieve enormous success as she takes home one literary prize after another, while Howard's own career progresses more slowly, and she often struggles to get her work into print. Her husband begins a long decline with Parkinson's Disease, and later Shields is diagnosed with the cancer she died of in 2003. And amidst all this life, overwhelmingly, there is such joy. Inevitable, I suppose, from two women doing what they loved best (writing) and sharing their ideas all the while with an old, loved, cherished friend.

I suspect that there is something about my gender which makes me particuarly fond of collections of letters. It's the same thing that makes me an assidious evesdropper, missing my streetcar stop, for example, so as not to miss the end of a stranger's conversation. I find something so delicious about other people's lives, but when these people's lives are extraordinary, and when their expression of their lives via the written word is so particularly vivid, the resulting book can't help but be gripping. And bookishly speaking, what a thrill I get being privy to the genesis of their own works, to their exchanged thoughts on Margaret Drabble's "latest" The Radiant Way, Shields' response to Joan Didion's "On Keeping a Notebook", to their critical admiration for M. Atwood, and feelings toward other giants in the CanLit scene.

Howard, along with her daughter Allison Howard, has edited these letters wonderfully. Divided into approprate chapters introduced by Howard, and interwoven with other relevant writings to flesh out the context, there is a wholeness to this work. Functioning on so many levels, truly it is a celebration. And not just of Shields and her powerful voice (whose power is undeniable here), and its silence too soon. But a celebration also of engagement with the world, of women, their lives, and, most of all, their friendships.