A man, a woman and Winnipeg
Carol Shields’ The Republic of Love is a beautifully written examination of that most desired, ecstatic, disappointing, confusing, inexplicable, wonderful, bizarre and devastating experience – romantic love.
Tom Avery is a 40-year-old man who has recently failed at his third marriage. He is a successful night-time DJ on a Winnipeg Radio Station whose audience is often the lovelorn, the lonely, and he smooths the night with chat and music, whilst ‘in real’ his life is rather falling apart. He still yearns to meet ‘the one’
Fay McLeod is 35, and is about to end her relationship with a man she no longer loves, with whom she has been living for 3 years. She has never married, but has a history of relationships with perfectly credible partners, but she can’t quite commit. She yearns to meet ‘the one’. She is a folklorist in Winnipeg; her speciality is mermaids – mythical creatures who lured the unwary to their deaths by drowning through their seductive siren songs, sending the listener mad. A fairly potent love metaphor.
We know, as we follow Tom and Fay in alternate chapters, for almost half the book, that at some point they are going to meet and we expect the trajectory of a romance.
However, forget moons, Junes, clichés, as there are many ways in which this most enduring of fiction subject matter ‘the love story’ may play out. Particularly when the essence of love is written about by such a warm, tenderly but objectively clear and unsentimental writer as Shields. A writer who can slyly, wryly, – and let’s face it, even truthfully say the following, as expressed by one of her two central characters:
….love is not, anywhere, taken seriously. It’s not respected. It’s the one thing in the world everyone wants…..but for some reason people are obliged to pretend that love is trifling and foolish.
Work is important. Living arrangements are important……Even minor shifts of faith or political intention are given a weight that is not accorded love. We turn our heads and pretend it’s not there, the thunderous passions that enter a life and alter its course. Love belongs in an amateur operetta, on the inside of a jokey greeting card…….It’s possible to speak ironically about romance, but no adult with any sense talks about love’s richness and transcendence, that it actually happens, that it’s happening right now, in the last years of our long, hard, lean, bitter and promiscuous century
In this book (originally published in 1997) Shield’s other central motif is the interconnectedness of each to other, particularly in a moderately small city – so though Tom and Fay have actually been living in the same area of the city for some years, they have never met. On a ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ map they have several possible routes of finally meeting – Shields draws out tangled, myriad points of connection between different groups and subgroups of people in the city. So Winnipeg itself is a major player in her story
This was so well crafted; her characters (all) individual, rounded, real. It’s absolutely obvious what the plot is, that is predictable – satisfyingly so, but it is the precision of the journey, Shields’ warmth, humour and accuracy, her ordinary but unique characters, and her careful examination of the day-to-day mystery of love itself, made this a hugely enjoyable read.
And, …to the title – Kingdoms imply rank and status, Republics (in theory) RepResent the Will of The People. The Republic is in theory something freely chosen and willed by the majority. However, as we know, Republics may be forced upon the populace, the power may not be vested in the people. Republics may come into being through force and violence, and the people have been unwillingly subdued and subjugated. Shields has given us a title which contains many meanings and layers, some of them contradictory, with meanings both overt and covert
I was delighted to be offered this as an ARC by Open Road Media, who continue to produce excellent e-book versions of fine writing originally published within the last 50 years. I generally find myself fully appreciating the chance to re-read gems from recent literature, or discover fine writing which passed me by.
This book was also turned into a RomCom movie. Perhaps the kindest thing i can say is that the film would NOT have made me want to read the book, whilst the book (with trepidation which proved to be totally justified) did make me curious to see whether film would be able to handle the subtlety of Shields’ writing, or would settle for the superficialities of the classic shape of a love story – boy meets, loses etc, and thus, end up with s strong whiff of cheese. Edam, with a sprinkle of icing sugar. Perhaps the small but telling fact that Fay McLeod, aged 35 in Shields’ book, has 5 years dropped from her age in the film, also says ‘stay away!’
Shields’ writing certainly holds humour within itself, and I have categorised the book both as Romance and Lighter Hearted Reads – but primarily she falls, to my readerly eye, firmly into the lit-fic territory. Rom-Com if you like – but in the light, barbed, nuanced way of Jane Austen. And the time of her writing inevitably pushes this into the darker, post-Freudian, world.