cover image A Celibate Season

A Celibate Season

Carol Shields, Blanche Howard. Penguin Books, $12.95 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-14-027511-7

Friends for three decades, the Pulitzer Prizewinning author of The Stone Diaries and Canadian novelist Howard (The Manipulator) collaborated on this touching, if facile, epistolary novel. First published in Canada in 1991, the work follows 10 months in the life of Canadians Jocelyn and Charles (Jock and Chas) Selby, who vow a season of celibacy when Jock takes a temporary government job on the other side of the continent. Opting against e-mail and expensive phone calls, they decide to communicate through the old-fashioned medium of letters, hoping as well to rekindle the romance in their 20-year-old marriage. The letters evolve into revealing, diarylike entries about architect Chass lack of employment, Jocks new life in Ottawa, their two teenaged children, and, ultimately, the state of their marriage. Many of these entries are intimate and searching, musing ruefully and honestly about the mysteries of the connubial tie. Some possess that combination of philosophical sincerity and earnest clumsiness that is often more charming in a good letter than in literature. Chas writes, sometimes it seems to me that men and women advance through time along parallel lines that obey the laws of geometry and never truly intersect. As Jock and Chass separation wears on, both struggle with the temptation to stray from celibacy. For a story so deep on emotion, the ending may strike readers as too quick and rather blas. But Shields, who wrote the Chas letters, and Howard, who penned the letters from Jock, are skillful writers, and the epistolary form adds dimension to their thoughtful novel of love, marriage and forgiveness. Howards foreword sheds light on the inspiration for and particulars of their collaborating process. (May)