Long time no type, WordPress! I’ve read 3 (almost 4) books since the last time I wrote a review, so I have some catching up to do. Let’s kick off with a great collection from my literary idol, Alice Munro.
“In eight new stories, a master of the form extends and magnifies her great themes–the vagaries of love, the passion that leads down unexpected paths, the chaos hovering just under the surface of things, and the strange, often comical desires of the human heart.
Time stretches out in some of the stories: a man and a woman look back forty years to the summer they met–the summer, as it turns out, that the true nature of their lives was revealed. In others time is telescoped: a young girl finds in the course of an evening that the mother she adores, and whose fluttery sexuality she hopes to emulate, will not sustain her–she must count on herself.
Some choices are made–in a will, in a decision to leave home–with irrevocable and surprising consequences. At other times disaster is courted or barely skirted: when a mother has a startling dream about her baby; when a woman, driving her grandchildren to visit the lakeside haunts of her youth, starts a game that could have dangerous consequences. The rich layering that gives Alice Munro’s work so strong a sense of life is particularly apparent in the title story, in which the death of a local optometrist brings an entire town into focus–from the preadolescent boys who find his body, to the man who probably killed him, to the woman who must decide what to do about what she might know. Large, moving, profound–these are stories that extend the limits of fiction.” – blurb from the Penguin website.
Fans of character-focused, realist short stories would enjoy Alice Munro. She’s probably my all-time favorite short fiction author, and without fail anytime I read a Munro book, I end up saying “damn, Alice Munro is so good. Why is Alice Munro so good?” out loud. I’m not sure on what criteria to recommend one of her collections over another, but I think this one is fairly well-known and would be as good a place to start as any.
It’s hard for me to review or discuss an Alice Munro collection distinctly from any of her others. Her stories have a lot of similar moods as a group and I can’t articulate what might distinguish one collection from another. That said, there was an almost humorous number of stories about women leaving their husbands for mediocre artsy men, so maybe that’s the distinguishing factor of this collection?
I was very impacted by the last story in the collection, which is about the violinist woman trying to take care of her baby who she pretty clearly didn’t like and who didn’t like her. The story is told from the now-grown-up perspective of the baby. There’s a bit at the end that reads:
“I had to settle for Jill and for what I could get from her, even if it might look like half a loaf.
To me it seems that it was only then that I became female. I know that the matter was decided long before I was born and was plain to everybody else since the beginning of my life, but I believe that it was only at the moment when I decided to come back, when I gave up the fight against my mother (which must have been a fight for something like her total surrender) and when in fact I chose survival over victory (death would have been victory) that I took on my female nature.
And to some extent Jill took on hers. Sobered and grateful, not even able to risk thinking about what she’d just escaped, she took on loving me, because the alternative to loving was disaster.”– “My Mother’s Dream” by Alice Munro
Oof. Got chills just re-typing it. Why is Alice Munro so good?! I think I’ve seen parts of the above paragraphs quoted before but I don’t remember the context. They’re very memorable lines that really encapsulate what Munro is all about–stories of women who choose survival or victory, loving or disaster, over and over again because those are the options they have, and those options often masquerade as each other.
On the topic of “why is Alice Munro so good,” here are some thoughts I had while reading this collection that I expressed to Zak, slightly refined. Why is it so satisfying to read a story that makes you think ‘wow, yeah, that’s exactly what living life and being a human feels like’, as if everybody doesn’t already know? Why’s it so hard to capture and reproduce scenes of the little things that feel the most important, if everyone seems to agree what those little things are or can be? Writing is weird. Certainly not everyone values all the same things the same amount all the time, but enough people valued those little things that Munro writes enough that she got a Nobel prize for literature. I wish it was as easy to write as it is to recognize qualities that I value in writing.