cover image The Box Garden

The Box Garden

Carol Shields. Penguin Books, $10.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-14-025136-4

Charleen Forrest, Judith Gill's sister (see Small Ceremonies, above), is obsessive and hyper-romantic, a poet who no longer writes because ``having given away the well of myself, there is nowhere to go''--except inward. Which is why she looks for deeper meaning in nylon slips and train berths. And why, when her lover describes his father's faltering attempt at sex education (``See The Prairie Lovelies--Only Twenty-five Cents''), she imagines his family as imbued with ``a sort of decency which surfaces unconsciously.'' It's also why she pictures her father's massive heart attack as ``a tidal wave of pressure, a blind wall--darkness crushing him as he lay sleeping.'' Today, a doctor would give Charleen Prozac and send her on her not-so-merry way. But in 1977, when Shields wrote her second novel (which, like Small Ceremonies, is making its first U.S. appearance), the more common treatment for such neuroses was to endure. Charleen not only endures but comes out stronger after one especially trying weeklong trip across Canada to attend her mother's wedding when she is confronted with more of her past than she--or the reader--expects. It's the sort of experience that should send her completely over the edge, but Charleen isn't quite as fragile as she seems. In less capable hands she'd be a caricature, her transformation contrived. But Shields makes Charleen and her experiences believable. Even more rewarding, she makes them endearing. (Jan.)