“Dolly,” one of the 14 stories in Alice Munro’s “Dear Life,” opens with the narrator and her husband, Franklin, a famed poet, planning their deaths. Before they can take steps, a woman called Gwen arrives at the house selling cosmetics. Friendly, extroverted, a chatterbox, she returns a few days later to deliver some lotion and can’t leave because her car refuses to start. That’s when she and Franklin recognize each other. “Dolly,” he exclaims. Gwen, it turns out, is Gwendolyn, known in earlier days as Dolly and known to Franklin’s readers as the inspiration of his most famous poem.
“They knew how lavish she was with her love,” and that she “enthralled him.” Our narrator is much less enthralled, and what was charming in Gwen/Dolly becomes alarming when she has to stay overnight. It would spoil the tale to say what happens next, but clearly Franklin and Dolly’s wartime relationship, his later career as poet-cum-horse trainer, his iconic Dolly poem, his marriage and his wife’s reaction to Dolly’s reappearance — to say nothing of their plans for their deaths — could be the stuff of a novel.
And this is true, too, of many of the other stories in “Dear Life.” Indeed, in “Amundsen,” shades of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester linger in the cold sanatorium for children with TB, witnessing the courtship of the brusque and charismatic doctor and the inexperienced and bookish young teacher. “Leaving Maverley” is another story of a man and two women that a less-skilled writer would have let sprawl into a novel, and so is “Train,” the tale of a returning World War II veteran who jumps off a train on the way home and moves in with an eccentric woman on a remote farm.
None of these stories needs to be a novel, however, and that’s because Alice Munro confects her characters and shapes their backgrounds so deftly that the stories have all the rich lusciousness of novels without their tendency to put on more weight than they should.
Most of them are set in the 1940s and ‘50s or, if not, their characters look back to those decades. In a sense, then, these stories are historical, often recalling the rationing and responsibilities of World War II. Usually the locale is farms and small towns in Ontario. Today, they typically have “A decent-sized market, where you could get fairly fresh vegetables, though they would probably not be from the fields around, okay coffee. Then a Laundromat, and a pharmacy, which could fill your prescriptions.”
Usually these little towns have seen better days because there’s been a mill of some kind, and it’s made enough money for a few families to build bigger houses and fund two or three churches. But even when Ms. Munro was growing up in just such a place (she was born in 1931) the glory days were over. Many of her characters are poor — simply a fact of life, not a cause for special angst in these tales. A few are rich, so their lives are materially easier, but their happiness is not secured by wealth — and, this, too is not overemphasized. What piques Ms. Munro is the way people fasten onto each other, work things out, perhaps as a way of getting by or perhaps only as retrospective assessment of what has happened in their lives.
This is the case in the last four stories in the book, which Ms. Munro introduces as “not quite stories.” She describes them as a “unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” In one of these pieces, the narrator describes herself going through a spell of insomnia. She has unwelcome but pervasive thoughts about strangling her sister. Eventually she tells her father, who takes it as a matter of course. “If this were happening today, he might have made an appointment for me to see a psychiatrist,” she notes. “(I think that is what I might have done for a child, a generation and an income further on.)”
Ms. Munro doesn’t do the psychiatric thing for her characters, though, and that’s one of the secrets of their allure. She tells her readers what they need to know but doesn’t overanalyze. She lets her characters be quirky, sometimes unforthcoming. Her title, “Dear Life,” suggests the effect of this technique. It captures the variety of life and its loveliness but also its anxieties — those things that make us run for it.
Alice Munro has long been acknowledged as one of Canada’s literary treasures. This new volume, with its historical slant, its autobiographical material, its impressionistic descriptions of scenery, its occasional nostalgia and pleasing irony, confirms her reputation.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.
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