A Celibate Season – Carol Shields and Blanche Howard (1991)


This was an epistolary novel whose title popped up somewhere on one of the blogs I crossed by the other day. You know that I can’t resist an epistolary book so, of course, I had to get this. This Canadian novel focuses on the letters sent between a married couple when the wife (who is a newly minted lawyer after having been a stay-at-home mum for years) is given a temporary posting as legal counsel for a government commission on the other side of the country.

As the weeks of the assignment turn into months and the couple continue to correspond through letters, the relationship sours for a variety of reasons. One of the big reasons (clued in by the title) is that both individuals decide to remain celibate whilst they are separated (which they sorta should since they’re, like, you know, married and apart…) and this turns into a BIG deal for the couple.

When she leaves home, the house goes to he** — why? Because the husband can’t cope as he is a caveman. This book is soooo dated even though it was only written in 1991.  He doesn’t pay the phone bill so the phone is disconnected for weeks making it difficult for the wife to call home when a letter won’t do. He can’t cook properly and won’t clean…

He’s unemployed so moons around doing nothing in particular (although he does sign up for a poetry class). Even though he has all this spare time, he has to hire a (female) cleaner and then go on about her in his letters to the wife – none of which she is happy about. Additionally, there are two adolescent kids who seem to have secret lives going on which the husband/father doesn’t address despite the mother’s request to do so. (And with the phone disconnected, she can’t do anything about it.)

The format of letter-writing really helped to emphasize the slow speed at which their whole world changed and how they reacted (or didn’t, as the case may be). (I imagine it would be a different set-up with communication as it is now.)

It sounds like it was rather an annoying read (and it was at times), but then I put some thought into it and realized that, generally, this is how small incremental changes become life-changing events – very gradually – so it was effective in the end.

However, the book is soooooooooooooo dated. (It reminded me of Atwood’s Surfacing (novel) which was written in 1971 and was all about swinging hippies etc.) The characters in this book also engage in weird sexual parties on occasion and both end up having sexual flings. I was in my 30’s during the 1990’s, but I don’t remember being invited to any weird sex parties or anything (which is fine), but was Canada like this back then? Additionally, the book was set in Vancouver which Shields refers to as Lotus-land presumably because of the hippie connection.

So – this was an OK read. Good strong epistolary set up – rather dated characters who do rather dated things. I’ve read stronger work by Shields.

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