The Republic of Love by Carol Shields
Love in various kinds is the theme of this well written book of life for two people, their friends and family, in the surprisingly interlinked city of Winnipeg. Fay is a folklorist, an expert on the stories that make up lives, with an interest bordering on obsession on mermaids. Tom is a late night radio presenter who lives alone, a sparse life of few possessions and confused ambitions. Something is missing in their lives; Fay is in a passionless relationship with a man whom she likes, but cannot feel more for, whereas Tom has three marriages and three divorces behind him, three women whose defects were not redeemed for him by love. There are those that they do feel affection for, an interest in, but they know all too well the feeling of empty evenings, or mornings, of empty apartments and houses unfilled by another person. Shields’ voice, her writing is patient and kind as she pictures these two people, their habits, their families and friends, including the strange and unexplained oddities of life that change things. Sudden events, surprising announcements and realisations throw things slightly adrift, as Fay and Tom live parallel lives of small decisions and resolutions. There are no great dramas, mysteries or acts of violence, just lives nearly intersecting, nearly overlapping, as people discover the slightly unreasonable nature of love. I found it a moving, undramatic book full of pictures of life in the late twentieth century, an understated classic of elegant writing unpretentiously displayed. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this fine book.
Tom is at first depicted as the baby with twenty – seven mothers. His birth mother was ill, physically and mentally, so Tom became the practice baby for the Department of Home Economics in a University. Fay has been in a relationship with Peter for three years, one thousand days, and she realises that she does not love him. Not that he has been unfaithful, or even unreasonable. At thirty five, she realises that she cannot find any love for him, but is not sure that she can live without him, his physical presence, in her life. There have been other men before him, and she hopes that there will be others after him, but at the moment she wants more, something different. After all, her parents, perfectly reasonable people, have been married for thirty nine years. Tom maintains an austere life in the apartment that he has found himself in after three joint lives. Full of insecurities, he knows that his radio programme which issues forth in the small hours is the haunt of insomniacs, often with strange ideas, frequently lonely people. He attends meetings of the Newly Single Club, not because he is newly single, or desperate to meet a woman for a brief relationship, but to fill the empty hours of a Friday night, as opposed to the emptiness of a Saturday morning which he fills with running. He is not short of friends who include him in social occasions, he is a well- trained bringer of gifts to family lunches. He wants more, but he struggles to recognise what that more might look like. Fay has her mermaids, the mythical theme of tales and stories on the edge of human existence, and the feminine form which is least linked to motherhood.
This is a gentle book which shows the links between people which survive tensions and separations, confusions and circumstances. In a city there should be masses of people who are unknown, and sometimes the links are tenuous, accidental, more coincidental than intentional. When significant people do meet it can be important, life changing and have a great impact on other people, but it will not be a huge drama. This is a book of people considering their choices, their wants, and the meaning of that elusive emotion, love.