Jack Bowman has two decent kids, and when he has sexual fantasies they tend to be about his wife, Brenda—“a quilt-maker in her own right,” as a neighbor once introduced her. They live in a pleasant suburb of Chicago, he works as an historian, and every Friday he and Bernie Koltz get together over so-so veal to talk about ideas. Entropy, for instance, really got them going. But one week, when his wife flies off to a craft show in another city, doubt creeps into Bowman’s life. Maybe he and old Bernie are, as he puts it, just “a couple of self-conscious, third-rate, midwestern pseudo-intellectuals, tongues loosened on cheap wine and cliché nihilism.”
Bowman has lost all sense of connection between his work and daily life. The book he is writing has stalled at
chapter 5, and anyway a long-lost girlfriend is going to beat him into print with a book on the same pointless subject. The distant mirror of history, for the time being, has fogged over. It takes the absence of his wife, a neighbor’s attempted suicide and the discovery that he can’t, has never, changed his own typewriter ribbon, to put him back in touch with reality.
As its rather wan, literary title suggests, Happenstance is a sensitive novel about the small, crucial dramas in a happy, average family—just about the hardest thing to write, in other words. Carol Shields, the author of Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, happens to be a writer of genuine sensitivity, with a generous, quick-witted style, but here she appears to be straining to write extraordinarily about the ordinary. Her language often sounds self-consciously clever, as if marinated in academic wisecracking. She has a weakness for drop-dead similes: comparing
someone’s elbows to new potatoes, “brown and cunning,” is catchy, but describing the sun as “fuzzed at the edges like a Nerf ball” is one of those pirouettes of the imagination that should have been given the hook by an editor.
Like the historian who learns that the study of events has walled him off from experience, Shields is a gifted novelist whose love of language tends to get in the way of her writing.
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