cover image Small Ceremonies

Small Ceremonies

Carol Shields. Penguin Books, $12 (194pp) ISBN 978-0-14-025145-6

On the surface, there's nothing about Judith Gill that would recommend her as an ideal protagonist. She's ordinary: wife of a rather remote academic, mother of adolescents she no longer really knows, biographer of arcane subjects. But Shields's gift is in making the ordinary compelling. What's surprising in this, her first novel originally published in 1976 and released in the U.S. for the first time, are the almost playful touches, which stand in contrast to the relatively placid rhythm of her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries. Just when Small Ceremonies begins to look like a quiet little story about a middle-class woman in an anonymous Canadian city, Shields tosses in a twist that forces the reader to look at Judith in a new light. It's Shields's repeated juxtaposition of orderliness and spontaneity, the mundane with the unexpected, that makes Judith an appealing subject-though she wouldn't see herself that way. The consummate biographer, Judith focuses more on others than on herself. And while Shields doesn't moralize in this slight novel, if there is a message, it is this: we may think we know the people who fill our lives, but we really only know parts of them-and we're fooling ourselves to think otherwise. (Jan.)