A Celibate Season

Shields, Carol and Blanche Howard. A Celibate Season. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Reason read: April is National Letter Writing month…or so they say.

In a nutshell, a couple is separated by a wife’s internship. The husband stays behind to care for the home life. Together, they decide to handle their separation with minimal phone calls and visits, choosing to communicate primarily through handwritten letters. In truth, I had a love-hate relationship with A Celibate Season. On the one hand, I am a big fan of the epistolary technique. I like the subtle voyeurism of reading someone’s mail, especially strangers. I also found it interesting that what remained impossible for the characters to disclose to one another went into an unsent letter, thus keeping with a true epistolary technique. What I didn’t appreciate was the obvious breakdown of the marriage very early in the exchange of letters. I hated to see it coming that soon. Was it obvious to anyone else when Chas starts moving furniture around as soon as Jock is gone? Or when both of them start criticizing the people (strangers to each other) in each other’s lives? Does Jock bait Chas by mentioning her boss’s inappropriate comments? Or does Chas poke at Jock by admitting the cleaning lady disliked Jock’s kitchen curtains enough to remove them? Before page 50 I predicted Jock would have an affair with Austin and Chas would sleep with Sue. Ugh.
Probably the most realistic argument Chas & Jock have is about money. Chas is an unemployed architect, taking care of their two children while Jock is the money maker. Chas can’t pay the furnace repair bill while Jock frets about needing a new dress for a House of Commons reception.
One last gripe – I don’t think quoting long conversations verbatim is realistic in a letter.

Note to self: stop reading the “Questions for Discussion” section of books before finishing the book itself. I was disappointed by the question about Chas and Jock’s marriage, “Has the “celibate season” made it weaker or stronger?” That to me implies a non-ending ending; one of those ambiguous yet ubiquitous, it’s-up-to-the-reader endings. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

Book trivia: A Celibate Season was a play before it was published as a novel.

Author(s) fact:
Carol Shields – Shields died in 2003.
Blanche Howard – Howard went on to write a memoir of her friendship with Shields in 2007.

Nancy said: not a lot. She just said A Celibate Season is a good epistolary to read, if you like the technique.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the intriguing chapter called “Epistolary Novels: Take a Letter” (p 80).

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