Dear Life: Stories
by Alice Munro
Rating: **** ½
Dear Life is the first collection of Alice Munro’s short fiction I have read. I think I need to read more of her work to fully understand her style and themes and to write an intelligent review. But I very much enjoyed reading this collection of ten short stories and four essays. Since so many people have studied and written about Munro, all I can do here is express my own ideas and opinions and tell you how these stories made me feel.
They made me uncomfortable. Her characters do uncomfortable things. They find themselves in strange relationships and situations. They relate to each other in a kind of disconnected state, and then retreat internally and think uncomfortable thoughts. These stories often end with a surprise or a looming unknown. Sometimes there’s a sliver of hope, shown by a character’s brief turn of the head, expression or word. Munro writes about the hard times of the past in Canada, The Great Depression, World War II, and the 1960s and 70s. These are not upbeat stories, but they aren’t hopeless. For me, I got a sense of people taking whatever happiness or satisfaction was available, but more or less accepting whatever came their way. The characters all seem passive to me and although travel seems to be a common theme, her characters are also aimless in spirit and ambition.
The ten short stories have interesting titles, revealing very little:
“To Reach Japan”
“In Sight of the Lake”
At the end of these stories, Munro writes that the four remaining pieces are somewhat autobiographical. They read like a description of how things once were for the author and are more loosely structured stories. They are a little bit shocking.
I liked “Haven” and “In Sight of the Lake” the best because the plots in these stories make you want to know what the characters will do in their predicaments. In “Haven,” the narrator is a thirteen-year-old girl who is living with her aunt and uncle. Her uncle is controlling and disapproving and it’s satisfying to see him thrust into an uncomfortable situation. Munro writes a touching story about dementia in “In Sight of the Lake.” You feel anxiety watching Nancy try to find her doctor’s office, you feel sad when she takes the wrong turns, but you sympathize with Nancy and hope she will find her way.
One of Munro’s stories, “Dolly” is relevant to this week’s news about right-to-die laws. It opens with the narrator telling us, “That fall there had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Frank being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time.” They had discussed ending their lives, “Gone while the going was good,” she says. She’s not totally on board and this is what strikes me as an extremely relevant point, “I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen in our lives. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed.” And of course, much more does happen.
Some of Munro’s other common themes are religion, marriage, relationships, being different, hardship and death. What I liked best about these stories is how her characters surprise you with important truths. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
- In “To Reach Japan,” young Katie reacts to her mother meeting up with Harris at the train station: “(Katie) didn’t try to escape. She just stood waiting for whatever had to come next.”
- When Ray leaves the hospital after his wife’s death in “Leaving Maverly,” he’s confronted by the idea of moving forward, “And before long he found himself outside pretending that he had as ordinary and good a reason as anybody else to put one foot ahead of the other.”
- The least likable character in “Gravel” is Neal, yet what he says is the most true to his character and represents a distinct philosophy: “The thing is to be happy…Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”
- In “Pride,” the narrator has chosen a lonely life, because of his facial deformity. But as an older man who sees the war’s impact on the people around him, he realizes, “And I thought then, just living long enough wipes out the problems…”
- I also liked the observation at the end of “Corrie,” a great story about adultery and blackmail, when Corrie understands what her relationship with Howard has really been: “There’s always one morning when you realize that the birds have all gone.”
Maybe it’s better to start at the beginning with Alice Munro. I’m just jumping on, but I’m going to keep on reading!
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