Happenstance: two novels in one about a marriage in transition

These two unique companion novels tell the stories of Jack and Brenda Bowman during a rare time apart in their many years of marriage. In The Husband's Story (originally published in 1980 as Happenstance), Jack is at home coping with domestic crises and two uncouth adolescents while immobilized by self-doubt and questioning his worth as a historian. In The Wife's Story (originally published in 1982 as A Fairly Conventional Woman), Brenda, traveling 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, insightful and never sentimental, Happenstance is a profound portrait of a marriage and of those differences between the sexes that brings life - and a sense of isolation - into the most loving relationships.
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A perfect little gem of a novel."
- Toronto Star

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This book has the unusual format of containing two books in one: from front to back reads "The Wife's story" and from back to front "The Husband's story." The latter was written first, but the two are written such that either can be read first.

The wife, Brenda Bowman, is a housewife who has recently gained commercial success and cultural renown as a quiltmaker. As the novel opens, she is leaving her Chicago home to attend a quiltmaker's conference in Philadelphia. Over the course of a week, she attends workshops on various aspects of quiltmaking, makes friends, and becomes increasingly intimate with a man she meets. On the first night at the conference, she visits him in his room and leaves there her brand new red raincoat, which she purchased at an exorbitant price, and finds it missing when she returns. She reflects much on her relationship with her husband Jack and with the two teenage children she has left at home.

Meanwhile, Jack remains at home. His half of the story covers the same timespan but essentially none of the same events. Jack is a historian who has been working for years at the same book and is beginning to doubt himself and his subject matter. He reads in a journal that an ex-girlfriend, the girl he left for Brenda, has just published a book on ostensibly the same topic. While pondering the future of his career, Jack is overwhelmed by crises: his best friend separates from his wife and comes to stay at the Bowman house; the next door neighbor attempts suicide. All the while, Jack ponders his own role in history and the way that the recorded versions of events often leave out the most significant points.

- Melissa Rachiele, Resident Scholar, allreaders.com

As Shields handily demonstrates here, a marriage is the culmination of a million tiny moments, and she strings them together with intense cumulative power....a tour de force."
- Publishers Weekly

Carol Shields writes with delicacy and perception."
- The Montreal Gazette


Interview with Carol Shields about Happenstance (The Husband's Story)
Winnipeg Radio 2, 1981
Transcription of audio tape

Int Carol Shields is a Winnipeg writer. Her latest book is called Happenstance, a novel about a middle-aged survivor. I talked with Carol about her interesting views on being an author.
Carol, I'd like to begin by asking you about the title of your novel Happenstance. You have a quote in there about the hero, Jack Bowman, and it is pure happenstance that made him into a man without serious impairment or unspeakable losses and explain the significance of that.
CS Well happenstance is a strange word. It means half chance, half circumstance I think. I think really most of us are the people we are by chance. We don't write our own script I suppose is what I'm saying. We can't really blame all the forces around us - our parents and our happy or unhappy childhood - for the way we turn out. I think it's all a matter of chance or happenstance.


Re Marriage
Carol Shields (Author)
Happenstance: Two Novels in One About a Marriage in Transition.
Reviewed by Donna Coates

In a recent interview, Carol Shields confessed that she was "furious" when she came out of Four Weddings and a Funeral because "absolutely no one in that film had a job. People's work lives are written out of novels, too." Shields never writes people's work lives out of her fiction, though; in Happenstance (1980) and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982), re-issued as the two-volume set Happenstance: Two Novels in One About a Marriage in Transition (1991, 1994, 1997) work is a (pre)-occupation, one which she has continued to explore in The Stone Diaries (1993) and Larry's Party (1997). The clever packaging of Happenstance, apparently Shields' idea-the novels open from opposite sides, each upside down to the other-reflects her belief that the cultural conditioning imposed upon women and men in the 1950s which encouraged them to value work differently was detrimental to both.

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