The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

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The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Florence Holmes
Reviewed by Florence Holmes
Summary: A novel which questions what it is to be alone, and the fragility of love.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 412 Date: July 2016
Publisher: World Editions
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-94-623-8089-9

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The Republic of Love is a mesh-like novel, peopled with a huge cast of characters interwoven in familial, friendly, neighbourly and romantic relationships. Winnipeg, the city in which virtually all the action in Shield's novel takes place, ties them together. The story follows two single, thirty-something characters, Fay and Tom, who live opposite each other and have a complicated array of mutual acquaintances but don't know each other. Shields alternates between their two points of view as they are slowly drawn together. This is a domestic novel in the best sense; there is a focus on the beauty and mundanity of ordinary people's unremarkable lives in an unexceptional city, from Fay's satisfaction in the pop sound and toasted crumb smell of her twin slice toaster, to Tom's ungainly Saturday morning jogs.

Shield is an expert at writing characters who fill the reader with both admiration and pity. We despair at Tom's three failed marriages and smile ruefully at his attempts to become domesticated on his own. At the same time, he comes across as attractive, energetic and funny. The narrowness of Fay's life, the Saturday morning bran muffins with her father, the quantities of homewares owned but unused, render her easily empathised with for any woman who has ever been single. Yet her warmth and intelligence, the orderliness and conviction of her career, prevent her from becoming purely a figure of pity.

Shields nicely contrasts the enmeshed Winnipeg community with Fay and Peter's outward facing professional lives. Fay's research for her book on mermaids draws her as a hardworking, talented academic and yet the subject of her work is central to the questions the novel poses around aloneness and togetherness and the siren song (whether uttered by a man or woman) which brings people together. Tom's 12-4 night radio show is local but the frankness with which people speak in the middle of the night means it feels an entirely separate sphere to the city by day. As in her other novels, Shields writes naturally and with depth about obscure careers, and this is one of the aspects of The Republic of Love which elevates above mediocre literature to an enriching and joyous journey.

While the story is by no means heavy going, the reader is likely to be tripped up towards the end when Shields uses Fay's parents' relationship to add a twist to the main plot. The resolution is satisfying and unsettling in equal measure, leaving the reader certain that no relationship stands isolated from the swirl of others', and that no love is completely solid.

Further reading suggestions: Unless by Carol Shields and The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

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