By Alice Munro
Knopf, $25.00, 335 pages
REVIEWED BY DAVID SKINNER
Alice Munro is the kind of female writer Oprah’s Book Club should have hoisted to popular acclaim, but didn’t. Her stories are well-proportioned studies of women in various stages of life and self-understanding. They do not, however, provide the likely reader with easy scapegoats for whatever assails her fragile self-esteem. Instead, Ms. Munro’s fiction offers the mood of a rainy, weekday morning and the cold comfort of a fickle universe.
Ms. Munro is a gifted and dedicated craftswoman, as befitting the austere literary form to which she has devoted some four decades of life, the short story. No stranger to the pages of the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly, she has published 10 volumes of these little terrors, and has earned wide praise, though none as fervent as that from her native Canada, where the 73-year-old author recently received her second Giller prize to set on an already impressive shelf of awards and honors.
Often compared to the greatest short story writer of all time, Anton Chekhov, for the sudden, major reversals awaiting her unwitting characters, Ms. Munro has in fact a quieter, understated talent that invites a more appropriate comparison to Willa Cather, with whom she shares some geographical terrain and an interest in the trials of exceptional individuals, among other things.
Another problem with the Chekhov comparison is that, besides suggesting hyperinflation, it is sort of like comparing a contemporary epic poet to Homer because, well, no other important epic poet comes to mind. Of course, comparing a writer to Cather is nothing less than a sublime compliment in its own right, though let me temper it by saying it is not quite fully deserved. But the reason for making it in the first place is to draw attention to the important thread in Ms. Munro’s stories running from the rough life of provincial towns and their agricultural economies to the more urban and urbane life enjoyed by the rare person who escapes.
Such a journey is exactly what Mrs. Jamieson, a retired biologist, recommends to the woman who cleans her house, Carla, an abused farmwife, in the title story. This noble gesture quickly becomes a sobering lesson for both patron and patronized in how we sometimes choose the sad fate to which we only appear to be doomed.
Where Willa Cather aspired to literary excellence of a universal sort, Ms. Munro seems to be aiming a good bit lower, for what might be roughly (and anachronistically) called an exalted form of Chick Lit. Cather’s great men and women were never mere representatives of their sex; their concerns and struggles were those of humanity and civilization itself. Ms. Munro is meanwhile, aesthetically speaking, exclusively interested in life from the female point of view. Which is not to say this in an uninteresting approach (just the opposite), or unworthy of serious literary treatment, only that by agreeing to be exclusively a women’s writer, a writer promises not to be more than that.
Yet, what Ms. Munro does, she does exceptionally well. A trio of stories in “Runaway” follows another wayward soul, Juliet, as she begins her adult life and enjoys a dalliance with a stranger on a train; then later, as a mother, she returns to her hometown and visits her quirky parents who seem to regret the iconoclastic spirit they once espoused and to which Juliet herself continues to cling; then again as an aging woman, she’s been widowed and has parted ways with her own offspring, her only daughter.
The last is a particularly bracing piece of work as Juliet, a confirmed atheist who thinks very little of the church-goers she grew up with, confronts the possibility that her own daughter cut her off for spiritual reasons. What emerges finally is a very thoughtful portrait of a loner, an aging member of the intellectual class, finishing out the years by herself with dignity, but it’s a life turned sad and incomplete.
Another thing about Chekhov is how loud his stories are, with characters thrown full speed into disasters, talking and shouting all the way. In Ms. Munro’s stories, disaster strikes, and everyone is utterly changed, but the whole place is quiet. In “Passion,” a young woman develops an affinity with her future mother-in-law, a convivial and quick-witted woman of unstable nerves.
The older woman all but gifts her new young friend to her other son, the more brilliant one, her own soulmate, leading to a tragic chain of events. Such is the unstable mix of qualities and emotion that go into lovely, passionate people that the slightest crack in the faade, and, then, here comes disaster. But in a Munro story, little is actually said during or afterwards.
The last two stories of the group employ classic devices of life-changing confusion, where a misapprehension or a lie leads to a completely different future for everyone involved. The former is one more pitch-perfect study of a lonesome woman casting about for a heartfelt connection. When Mr. Wonderful finally appears, the young lady sees herself as a character in a story and conducts herself according to the plot as she understands it, never veering outside the literary conceit that has captured her imagination. When the story changes on her, she’s ill-equipped to see what’s happened.
In “Powers,” a quartet of lives are changes by the publication of an article exposing the clairvoyant powers of a local wise woman. A little hokey, this story suffers from comparison with the exacting standards for spiritual themes elsewhere in the volume. The confusion device comes when two people, otherwise believed to be quite devoted to each other, independently conclude the other is dead. A jewel of a premise, beside the supernatural subplot, it unfortunately seems wasted, a rare moment of fumbled execution in a fine book.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard and the editor of Doublethink magazine.