#LiteraryWives: Happenstance

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read Happenstance by Carol Shields! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

happenstance

This book is two complete novels in one. One novel follows Brenda Bowman as she spends five days in Philadelphia to attend an exhibition as part of the Chicago Craft Guild. Four years earlier, Brenda began making quilts and she’s quite good at it, selling her pieces as art. Having given up her career when she got married to Jack, these days away are the first time she’s traveled for ‘work’ and she spends a lot of time in her own head thinking about her marriage, and what she wants out of her quilting work. She winds up meeting a man at the hotel and flirts with the idea of having a kind of affair while she’s away.

The other novel follows Jack back home over the course of the days that Brenda is away. Suddenly Jack is responsible for feeding and looking after their kids, a daughter who is 12 and a son who is 14ish. Jack’s best friend also shows up at the door after his wife left him, and, after a party they host, the neighbour attempts suicide.

Both novels flit back and forth across time, Jack and Brenda when they met, how they grew up, what the early years of their marriage looked like, what it was like to be married with young children during the 1960s. Jack and Brenda both spend a lot of time in their heads, thinking about their marriage, each other, what their live looks like and what it could look like.

My Thoughts

I read the Brenda novel first. There were a lot of aspects of it that I liked – how it dealt with a woman getting back into a kind of career, Brenda’s ruminations on being a wife and mother, and how she felt about being at home with small children while other women seemed to be changing the world. But I was also bored. It took me DAYS to read Brenda’s section (it only took a day and a half to get through Jack’s). The whole will-she-won’t-she cheat angle also bored me. I’m not a fan of this plot in any case, like the only way to bring some excitement into one’s life is to have an affair [insert eye roll].

But I really liked Jack’s novel! There was a lot going on and Shields’ Jack had unusually high emotional intelligence for a man, definitely for a fictional man. It was interesting to get his take on their life together and how he’d mostly been really content being married to Brenda, that he still found her attractive and liked the life they had together. The dissatisfaction that he’s feeling at 43 stems from his work not being as exciting to him as it once was. As he toys with giving up writing the book he’s spent a few years on, it seems like an immense load is lifted and he looks forward to Brenda’s return. Brenda’s novel ends with her uncertainty about what she wants her life to look like, there’s some dread about going back to how things were.

Ultimately, the fact that Brenda decides not to have an affair is likely very realistic but it meant that the whole catalyst for happenings in her novel came to nothing. It wasn’t very interesting or engaging reading.

What does the book say about being a wife?

This book was published in 1980 and was probably incredibly progressive at the time. It was an interesting look at a woman dipping her toe into work outside of the home. Both Brenda and Jack are struggling with issues relating to their work – Jack with the fact that his work isn’t interesting like it used to be and Brenda with the question of how big her ambition is.

The book seems to be saying that being a wife is no longer enough for a fulfilled life. As Brenda is realizing that she wants more from her life, she realizes that she’s actually quite angry and dissatisfied:

At times she found herself longing for that other self, the Brenda of old, smiling and matter-of-fact. […] Whatever it was that had come into her life during the last year or so had brought frustration with it. A restless anger and a sense of undelivered messages.

The Bowman’s marriage is at a crossroads but only one partner realizes it. Jack believes that all is well, that Brenda’s quilting has filled a void he didn’t realize she had, and looks forward to her return from Philadelphia. But for Brenda, her quilting and time in Philadelphia have only served to underscore for her that she wants more and that her marriage might be holding her back. I’m not sure that the Bowman’s marriage survives to be honest.

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! Join us in December when we read The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

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8 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: Happenstance

  1. That’s funny, I felt that rather than being progressive for the 1980’s, Brenda seemed oddly unaware of a lot of feminism. It’s true that she is working outside her home, but it is in a “womanly” art and she was still supporting her whole home herself. I felt that Shields may have been trying to become more progressive with her character but was certainly playing it safe. I agree what you said about Jack, though.

    I think people these days tend to forget that there was an entire woman’s liberation movement in the 60’s and 70’s that kind of got shelved in the 80’s. Then a revival.

    • You’re right that Brenda wasn’t aware of feminism. She mentions a couple of times that so much happened in the 60s and 70s when she was living a traditional existence within her home and family. But those things are starting to resonate with her.
      I was born in the middle of the 80s so yeah, I don’t have any recollection of the 80s. I came of age, if you will, during the 90s. Girl Power and all that. We weren’t so concerned with what might have come before. We should have been more aware.

  2. Haha! We have some opposite thoughts about this book! I got more out of Brenda’s book than Jack’s, and I came away with a good feeling about their marriage. I think most people who are married have the same kind of doubts and questions as Brenda does. I don’t think they are marriage-breakers. I didn’t get the feeling that Jack was in Brenda’s way when it came to her quilting – staying with Jack will actually allow for her to spend more time on her own work – especially if he gets a little better at managing the house!

    • To me, it felt like she was wondering if there was more out there than just being married. Her ambition was stoked by the conference and she liked the idea of something more.
      I’m not sure that Brenda and Jack were great communicators and they both have some significant things going on internally – without talking to each other, it could be a few tough years. Or they become the kind of couple that has nothing in common but the kids.

      • True. I think their affection for each other is a good sign, though.
        And, maybe I’m weird, but I wonder about the “what-ifs” all the time. But I still choose here. 🙂

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