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Happenstance: Two Novels in One About a Marriage in Transition

3.69  ·  Rating Details ·  1,041 Ratings  ·  69 Reviews

These two unique novels tell the stories of Jack and Brenda Bowman during a rare week apart in their many years of marriage. Jack is at home coping with domestic crises and two uncouth adolescents, while immobilized by self-doubt and questioning his worth as a historian. Brenda, travelling alone for the first time, is in a strange city grappling with an array of emotions a

Paperback, 416 pages
Published March 1st 1994 by Penguin Books (first published 1980)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Jan 13, 2015 Debbie rated it it was ok
Contemplative. Thought provoking. Slightly depressing.

The first book of the year is complete. I'm ecstatic and relieved. This book was not what I assumed it would be. I must admit I was curious and excited about reading a two sided book. I thought one side is the wife, flipping the book upside/backwards we read the husband, is pretty clever. Why not? There are two sides to every story. I'm going to read the wife's point of view and then the husbands for the same situation. But this is not what
Jan 12, 2015 Joanna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
These two stories are the lives of ordinary people doing their ordinary things. The husband, Jack, is a historian, a father of two teenagers, and a son to aging parents. His half of the book is his inner dialogue during a week where his wife is away (one of the only times she's been away in their 20 years of marriage). The wife, Brenda, is a stay-at-home spouse, quilter gaining recognition, mother of two teenagers, and only daughter of a now-deceased single mother. I loved reading the perspectiv ...more
Jan 20, 2009 Diane rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
This book was a delightful surprise. It closely meets my criteria for an enjoyable book/movie in being the story of basically dull people to whom nothing much happens - in other words, people like me who are changed by life events. The book is set during one week in 1978 (book was published in 1980) in a Chicago suburb. In a rather hokey fashion that I liked, the book is divided into two parts - one related by the wife and one by the husband. You read one part and then turn the book upside down ...more
Aug 21, 2012 Elizabeth rated it really liked it
Rather than reading the wife's story and then the husband's story (or vice versa), I read a few chapters of one and then a few chapters of the other, back and forth, until I reached the end. I'm glad I read it this way because I enjoyed comparing what each was doing/thinking at roughly the same point in time. Shields writes both dialogue and interior thought very well. Her characters, especially Jack and Brenda, feel completely alive and well fleshed out. She makes seemingly ordinary lives inter ...more
Another beautiful novel by Carol Shields, this time down from two narrative perspectives, his and hers, during the same time frame. This is the third Shields' novel I have read in the past couple of weeks.
Each of them has been peopled by a married couple with children. Each of them has been full of gentle and startling insights into self and relationships. Shields shows ordinary folks as the simple, complex, base and nobe beings we all are. Her characters are Everyman. After I finished this boo
I am interested to see that most people have read the entirety of one spouse's story and then the next, whilst I am interleaving them - reading a few chapters of one, then flipping the book to read the other's timeline. I am enjoying the differences in their paralleled lives, and I feel that the clever contrasts in Shield's writing, in vocabulary and focus, attitudes and narrator reliability are enhanced by reading in this way.
Finished. Felt an odd loyalty towards Brenda, based purely on gender,
I've read The Wife's Story and quite enjoyed it. I liked reading about the quilts and found the convention conversations interesting and not a little humourous.

The conventioneer the wife meets really annoyed me; I thought that he was really corny! However I'm not saying the character was unrealistic...

I'm going to read something else in between the books as I started The Husband's Story and found I need a break between the two.


I found the husband's story more interesting than the wife's, t
Oct 26, 2009 Amy rated it really liked it
I love Carol Shields. So, when I saw this at the used bookstore, I snapped it up. As always, Carol touches on relationships with finesse and subtlety. There's a bit of a gimmick in that the book is told from two points of view of a marriage: one half is the wife's, the other her husband's. Both are of the same period of time when Brenda, the wife, travels to Philadelphia for a conference, leaving Jack at home with the kids. I think you can pick which you read first, although the true cover is Br ...more
Hannah Baker
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 18, 2013 Rebecca rated it liked it
I liked Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries so much that I had to read this book, but it did not mean as much to me. Maybe that's because I'm not as interested in an exploration of happenstance as I would be in an exploration of intent. Still, I enjoyed reading this. And happenstance happens.

Here's a passage I liked:

But anything can break the fragile arc of fortune, anything. There are casualties everywhere; Brenda is always running into them or hearing about them. She has been one of the lucky on
Apr 14, 2016 Amy rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016, april-2016
This is kind of ordinary and not a lot really happens but that might be why it's maybe the best novel about marriage I've read in a long time. The style feels very old fashioned in a great way; I don't know if it's intentional but it's very reminiscent of Mr and Mrs Bridge. I don't have a whole lot to say about this one but I really liked it a lot.
Lisa Marie
May 21, 2016 Lisa Marie rated it did not like it
We chose this book for our club based on the interesting narrative but I just could not get into it. The mundane lives of these 2 and the ridiculous amount of detail bored me to tears. I was hoping it was heading for a massive plot development that we would then read from both perspectives, but no. Pages and pages on bloody quilting. Christ. It took me ages to finish. I tried to put it in perspective of the time frame and the intentions of the author but it just wasn't for me.
Elena D
Aug 18, 2016 Elena D rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
A wonderful ending to what I hope is my first reading of Carol Shields' novels. For some reason I feel a profound connection to almost every thought. It has nothing to do with circumstances for both Carol's and her characters' circumstances have nothing to do with mine. I'm not middle aged, I'm not married, I don't have children and I was still a child when she passed. However, a single moment in this novel brings me closer to understanding who and why I am. When Jack finds out where Harriet is ...more
Janet Gardner
Sep 22, 2014 Janet Gardner rated it it was amazing
I loved the double structure of this book--two different perspectives on the same week in the course of a mostly-good-but-somewhat-problematic marriage. And as always with Shields, the prose is superb.
KG Gardner
Oct 23, 2013 KG Gardner rated it liked it
Happenstance is two stories, two points of view, of the same week in the life of a married couple. She is at 40 years just discovering herself. She leaves home for a week quilting conference. Flip the book over and start a second page one of what happens at home while she's away from the viewpoint of the husband. Do couples know each other really? As close as they exist and as deep their feelings are for one another do they (we) really understand each other? A read for a Text and Textiles course ...more
Karen Cramer
Jun 15, 2015 Karen Cramer rated it liked it
Interesting ideas about why women quilt. Not really a page turner.
Oct 24, 2010 Phoebe rated it really liked it
I really like the way Carol Shields writes. She elevates ordinary activity, ordinary life in such a way that you really care about her characters. This book is two, one from the point of view of a wife and the other (by turning the book upside down and opening from the other side) from the point of view of a husband. Shields doesn't describe the same events from two perspectives, just the same period of time. This is not a book of murders and car chases. I recommend it.
Sep 18, 2009 Paige rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Carol Shields (along with fellow female Canadian writers Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro) is one of my favorite novelists. This book was written more than a decade before her acclaimed "The Stone Diaries" but has similar literary writing style and insightful descriptions of characters. She also wickedly skewers social mores of the 1970s. The book is comprised of 2 novellas that look at a marriage from different angles, one told by the wife and one by the husband.
Jul 03, 2008 Fran rated it it was amazing
In 1980, Brenda and Jack Bowman are apart for five days while Brenda, a quiltmaker, attends a crafts exhibition in Philadelphia. Read the book from the pink side, and you follow Brenda's journey. Read it from the blue side, and you see what happens to Jack, who stays in Chicago with their two children. I found each character study both surprising and touching, and became attached to both protagonists. A sensitive, precise, beautifully written book.
Jax Wood
Jul 17, 2009 Jax Wood rated it it was amazing
I'm thoroughly enjoying this double novel. I chose the husband's side of the book first, in part to see if Carol Shields captured a genuine male voice as beautifully as she did in Larry's Party. She did! I'm now half way through the wife's side, and as with all books by Shields, the imagery she evokes is more vivid to me than with almost any other author. I know these people she writes about. I have met them.
Pat Osment
I did enjoy this book as it gave a really good insight into a married couples relationship and how they perceive each other.It showed how they functioned when apart from each other.Brenda seemed to fare better than Jack but it made them appreciate each other all the more when they were reunited.
At times I did get bored with the style of writing and irritated by the continual use of interrupted dialogue.
Dec 29, 2009 Mariah rated it it was ok
This was really sloooow and it just wasn't grabbing me. I liked the idea of half the book told from the woman's point of view then half told from the man's but the author didn't do it very well. After recently having read some other books where it was done much more deftly (Olive Kitteredge, The Girls) I see why I didn't enjoy this. Can't put my finger on it exactly but it just didn't work for me.
Jun 16, 2012 Tekapope rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oct 29, 2009 Sarah rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Sarah by: Chipp
Interesting premise...essentially two books in one, where you learn what happens during five days that a married couple spends away from each other, from each of their perspectives. The focus on domestic minutiae irritated me occasionally, and I didn't really love either character.

I recommend reading The Husband's Story first, though you could go either way.
Kirsty Darbyshire
Dec 07, 2010 Kirsty Darbyshire rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: paperback

Catching up with a big backlog of read books, hence very short writeups.

This is two separate stories The Wife's Tale and The Husband's Tale set during the same period of time. It wasn't anything like I thought it was going to be. They are really quite loosely joined pieces and weren't originally published as a set.

Hava Liberman
Jul 07, 2009 Hava Liberman rated it really liked it
Carol Shields chooses words like a chef picks the right knife for the job. She somehow conveys a complex and tortuous emotional state in a single uncomplicated sentence. How does she do it? My only complaint about this book is that the gender attitudes are a bit dated and stereotyped...but it's not like that's really gone away now either.
Jun 03, 2008 Roxann rated it liked it
Interesting to read if only because of the format - two books in one - two different perspectives, the husband and the wife. Two covers on the book, one the wife's, one the husband's. Start reading one, flip the book upside down and read the other from the back cover. They both end in the middle of the book which is where they meet.
Feb 11, 2013 Sheila rated it it was amazing
This book is very interesting. It tells the story about a marriage from two perspectives, that of the wife and that of the husband. Each half of the book reads from one side to the middle. This is one of my all time favorites but probably would be enjoyed by someone who has been married awhile more than a young single person.
Mar 27, 2009 D rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Few authors write with the clarity and utter believability of the characters, but Carol Shields is one who does. In this book she writes from the male and female perspective, a week in their lives, and in that time you explore the foundations and development of that relationship and marriage, the luck and paths taken.
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Carol Ann Shields was an American-born Canadian author. She is best known for her successful 1993 novel The Stone Diaries, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the Governor General's Award. Her novel Swann won the Best Novel Arthur Ellis Award in 1988.

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