Sunday, May 14, 2006

Two Odd Opposites

La Cucina, by Lily Prior and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields were almost completely opposite one another in style, tone and characters. La Cucina is a robust, saucy, juicy novel full of extravagant passions and drama. The Stone Diaries is, like its name, cool, hard, stiff with a prose style that is somewhere between Henry James and Mark Twain, with a bit of Thackery and Bronte thrown in for good measure. It is not an easy read, and there is just the faintest whiff of contempt from the author for some of her characters. La Cucina's main character, Rosa Fiore, reminded me of the main character in "Like Water for Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel, whose passions overtake her life. It was obvious that the author, Ms Prior, has a love of all things Italian and Sicilian in her lush descriptions of the food that Rosa makes and consumes, and in her descriptions of Rosa herself, who is of voluptuous proportions. I was fascinated by the Italian library that Rosa works in, and by the Englishman she becomes entangled with. His adoration of good food and lusty evenings with Rosa marked him as a rare hedonist with a heart. The ending was just right, just satisfying enough to send the reader off to dreamland knowing they've enjoyed a slice of life in sunny Italy. I wish that I could say the same for the Stone Diaries, which managed a Pulitzer on sheer prose density. The fact that Shields created a work of fiction that reads like a biography, and even has photos of various characters (!) shows that she has the grit to do the hard work of creating a world of people out of her own imagination, which is a feat. However, like real life, the main characters have disappointing lives and lingering deaths, divorces, despair and plenty of self delusions. Daisy Stone Goodwill Flett, whose life has a horrible start when her mother dies giving birth to her (she wasn't aware she was pregnant, apparently because she was fat. Shields seems to think that fat women are also incredibly stupid) spends half her childhood with an "uncle" whom she eventually marries. She has three children who seem spectacularly ungrateful and mean, and a host of grandchildren who seem slightly better. She is fired from a newspaper for no reason, something I could identify with, and goes through a depression that is described in odd ways via every other character. The switching back and forth between perspectives was unnerving and then irritating. The one thing I enjoyed about Shields prose was her descriptions of the natural world; the plants, the stars, the fields and gardens. She lavishes proud words on them that she stints on her characters. And in the end, instead of allowing Daisy's death to bring the book to a natural close, Shields adds all this superfluous dialog from Daisy's kids as they go through her things, her scrapbooks, lists, letters, etc, after her death. How ridiculous, morbid and awful. Why a competant author can't seem to end a novel properly is beyond me. It was certainly not a Pulitzer-worthy ending.

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