Philip's Reviews > The Republic of Love

The Republic of Love by Carol Shields
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's review
Mar 30, 12

Read in March, 2012

Republics do not have kings or queens, nor princes or princesses, so, we must assume, fairytales are out. Winnipeg is not exactly a republic, and, at least in terms of their love lives, two residents of the city, Fay and Tom, seem to inhabit a world where fairytales are inconceivable. But that place might not be Winnipeg: it might be closer in to themselves.

Despite – or perhaps because of - having had a multitude of mothers, Tom has been married three times, each attempt turning success into apparent and mildly painful failure, with or sometimes without associated acrimony. For her part, Fay, at thirty-five, has had several relationships of varied length, but none has led to wedding bells, a fact that seems to trouble her, sometimes.

Tom is a radio presenter. He hosts one of those late night phone-ins aimed at insomniacs, but usually attracting the opinionated. His mood, his history, his takes on where life has taken him clearly influence his style. Rises or dips in his personal life are immediately apparent, communicated without trying. But do not assume that anything offers even influence to what the contributors say. Rest assured, they will offer precisely what they want, perhaps precisely what they have been fed, if only because they are all as self-absorbed as everyone else.

Fay works more regular hours. She is an ethnologist and works in a folklore centre. She is heavily into mermaids, and perhaps they are also into her. She researches the mermaid myth, catalogues sightings, interviews people who have seem them, travels the world giving papers on our social and psychological need to invent these creatures. Mermaids, though overtly sexual and obviously female, are eventually sexless, unless they have exaggerated tails. They are both alluring and inviting, but, being half fish, they are cold-blooded and cold. They tempt, but cannot satisfy.

Obviously Tom and Fay are going to meet. They, along with their accumulated baggage, join forces and, as a consequence, begin to see life differently. But each is still influenced by relatives, acquaintances, ex-partners, ex-in-laws, new partners, parents and anyone else who might have an opinion. They all count. They all influence, especially when stiffness of apparent resolve can be easily bent by contradiction, shock or surprise. And so Fay and Tom’s relationship develops to what Carol Shields deems it should become. Throughout The Republic Of Love is beautifully written. Carol Shields’s prose is often witty, elegant, telling, funny, incisive or provocative all in one. A single sentence can turn on itself to frighten or mock its own beginning.

This is a book worth reading for its style alone. But it offers more than elegance of expression. These characters have all the confused confident complexity, the undirected and variable resolve we would expect from non-ideological adults in the last decade of the twentieth century. It would be interesting to revisit them twenty years on to see where they are now, to know if anything might have lasted. In The Republic Of Love they certainly come to life.
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