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Happenstance: Two Novels in One About a…

Happenstance: Two Novels in One About a Marriage in Transition (1991)

by Carol Shields

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Earlier this year I read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and while it has a few moments of brilliance, I didn’t think it was all that stellar. A review mentioned Happenstance as a better novel about two sides of a marriage and after doing a bit of research I decided to get a copy. Originally there were two books published; The Husband's story in 1980 and The Wife’s story in 1982. I tried to get them as individual books, but finally settled for the paperback which is presented with two front covers, the sections laid back to back, one upside down from the other. You have to flip the book over to read the other side. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it works and specifically for how I wanted to read the novel; not one entire narrative at a time, but interleaving the chapters staying at roughly the same time period for each. I think it worked.

Ostensibly it’s the tale of Brenda and Jack and their first time spent apart for any long period; five days, but also it’s the story of their whole marriage and how each sees it and the other. There aren’t any great secrets here or earth shattering reveals, it’s a quieter novel about the quotidian parts of married life and how they can mask deeper currents or even soothe an unquiet heart.

There are differences as well as parallels between the stories. Jack brings procrastination to a whole new level; he’s an artist and therefore has an unfinished manuscript that’s been languishing for years. In Brenda’s story there is an unfinished quilt, but because she’s a doer, we know it won’t stay that way for long and I wonder if she’s leaving it unfinished so Jack won’t feel so badly about his book. The ultimate solution about Jack’s book and the spectre of Harriet Post is pretty funny and typical of a man in Jack’s place and time, well almost any man, really, thinking himself center of everyone’s universe. At heart though, Jack is lazy and so dependent on other people that he leaves his kitchen a reeking mess and can’t change the ribbon on his own typewriter.

He is loyal though and so is Brenda and they both have the same romantic idea of their shared domestic situation; delighting in its simplicity and its mark of adulthood. Brenda is ending one phase of her life and beginning another; her kids aren’t dependent on her even if her husband is and she’s sort of going through the stages of grief over it; the anger phase is most prominent. The guild gathering is the perfect way to snap it off and mark it well. I did think that the quilt motif a bit heavy-handed in the sense that it’s Brenda’s way of seeing and processing history which is so different from Jack’s more literal way. The comment on how women’s artistic endeavors have been ignored and sidelined into “handicrafts” didn’t go unnoticed. It reminds me of the way some “pure” scientists ridiculed Benjamin Franklin because his approach was toward the practical application of science, not just for itself. The metallurgists anyone? Even though Jack is fallow, and not producing much, is his work inherently more important than Brenda’s because hers takes the form of quilts? It’s just one of the many questions you’ll have to think about with this novel. ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | May 4, 2016 |
I enjoyed reading the story from two different perspectives, and I wonder if it would have changed my reading to swap the order. Carol Shields has a realistic narrative style, but I wanted more of an outcome from the characters' ponderings. ( )
  ellohull | Feb 10, 2016 |
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. ( )
  thatotter | Feb 6, 2014 |
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.
  nocto | Dec 8, 2010 |
In the first 50 pages I couldn't tell if I liked Mrs. Brenda Bowman. She seemed too persnickety to me. Too particular. Too fussy. I am prone to comparing characters to myself, especially if we have something in common like upbringing, hobbies, schooling, age, or certain circumstance. In Brenda's case, it was age. We are almost the same age. So, by default her actions made me seem fuddy-duddy. Her husband seemed more laid back in an odd, disconnected kind of way. Together, they made up a marriage that needed some waking up, some simulaneous letting go. Both husband and wife had the opportunity to cheat on the other. I don't think it's a plot spoiler if I say the wife comes closer to doing so than the husband, even though the husband has a better excuse. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Jun 3, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
Canadian Shields, whose The Stone Diaries (see below), is being released simultaneously with this short pair of midlife- crisis novels, has become prolific and good enough to earn comparison with Margaret Atwood. Here, the story of a marriage is told in two back-to-back novels, one from the husband's view, the other from the wife's. Jack and Brenda Bowman, 40-somethings who live in the Chicago suburbs, have braided lives, but, in her narrative, Brenda leaves Jack and her two kids to attend a convention for a week with her handmade quilts. The Brenda of old used to be "smiling and matter- of-fact," but now she has "a restless anger and a sense of undelivered messages." Things go wrong fast—dizziness, for starters—and after an affair with an engineer and some sitcom, she returns home and feels, for a moment, "the Brenda of old," "a self that is curiously, childishly brave." Meanwhile, Jack, a historian who believes that "men spend whole lifetimes preparing answers to certain questions that will never be asked of them," deals with the kids, helps old friend Bernie (whose wife leaves him), visits a friend who attempted suicide, and finds that "the void left by his shattered faith had inexplicably grown." Picking up Brenda, he feels "a sudden buckling of his heart, for already he was sealing this moment in the clean preserving gel of history." The idea is a bit gimmicky, but the stories play out well. They're not the equal of The Stone Diaries; still, the husband and wife, baptized by brief separation, meet, literally, in the middle of the book, and that sensation—of matching the physical object of the book to the story—is worth the price of admission.
added by daddyofattyo | editKirkus Reviews

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Carol Shieldsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gossije, MarianneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Catherine Mary Shields
First words
The Wife's Story:
Every morning Brenda wakes up, slips into her belted robe, and glides - glides - down the wide oak stairs to make breakfast for her husband and children.

The Husband's Story:
At the restaurant Jack wanted to tell Bernie about Harriet Post, a girl he had once been in love with.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
First published in the UK in 1991, (ISBNs 872180086 and 0586092242), with title Happenstance, the husband's story ; Happenstance, the wife's story Later UK editions (ISBN 1841154687) have title Happenstance. Canadian editions, (ISBN 0394223594 and 0679308563), have title Happenstance : two novels in one about a marriage in transition. A US edition, (ISBN 0140179518) has this same title. The foreign language editions are translations of the 1991 edition.
NOTE: Happenstance, a novel, original publication date 1980, is not the same work as "Happenstance: two novels in one about a marriage in transition", etc. Note the titles. One contains one novel, the other two.
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Book description
These two unique novels tell the stories of Jack and Brenda Bowman during a rare weekend 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 and toying with the idea of an affair. Intimate and insightful yet never sentimental, Happenstance is a profound portrait of a marriage and the differences between the sexes that bring life — and a sense of isolation — into even the most loving of relationships.
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Two different novels relate the stories of Jack and Brenda Bowman during a weekend apart. Jack is coping with two unruly teenagers at home and Brenda is toying with the idea of having an affair.

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