The title story in this volume is fantastic. The slow unfolding and peeling back the layers of the story, the host of well-realized and believable characters bumping up against one another, the historical Canadian setting, and the surprise ending: I loved it all, and am not at all surprised that a movie was based on this 50-page story. It’s better than many a novel.
And there are a couple other stories here that I liked. “Comfort” is about the death of a husband, a severe biology teacher who fought the incursion of religion into the curriculum. I enjoyed this mostly for the husband’s story, and was less interested in the wife’s grieving and found the end to peter out. The last story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” follows a philandering but loving husband whose wife develops dementia and embarks on a nursing home romance. This one is poignant and its situations interesting, though I didn’t ever feel I knew enough about the wife and their relationship to completely engage.
The remaining six stories seemed to me to be variations on a theme, and it’s a theme Munro fully developed in The Beggar Maid, which I previously read and enjoyed. The protagonist is a woman who is searching for herself, who has an unsatisfying marriage; some of the stories focus more on the marriage, others on her life before or after. Sometimes she leaves, although this was an uncommon choice at the time these stories are set, while other times she contents herself with a fling. Her family background includes a dead mother and remarried father, living in some small town she has left behind. Her story involves learning about herself or about life and how to live in it.
These aren’t bad stories, but they didn’t particularly speak to me. In some cases I felt like perhaps I was a generation too young to appreciate the societal influences on these women and how those influences shaped them. The way the women fail to assert themselves in their relationships and make their needs known, the way their marriages often seemed to be strange and independent creatures rather than partnerships negotiated by the people involved, even in a world not too far removed from the modern one, left something of a blank for me. And because these are quiet, character-driven tales, it’s hard to appreciate them if they don’t speak to you.
All that said, of course these are very well-written stories, as one would expect from a Nobel Prize winner. I didn’t enjoy them all as much as I’d hoped; I wish Munro had included more along the lines of the first story. But it’s good literature, and I’m happy to have read it.
A question for those who have read more Munro than I: is this collection specifically thematically focused, perhaps to fit its title, or does all her work focus on these same preoccupations? What Munro collection should I read next if my goal is finding one that doesn’t feel repetitive after The Beggar Maid and this book?
This is my first Alice Munro, and it clearly deserves its literary accolades. It’s a short story collection that follows the same characters more or less chronologically through their lives: a girl and later woman named Rose, and her stepmother, Flo. The characters are certainly believable, and I became more engaged with it in the latter 2/3 of the book, as Rose becomes an adult living her own life and making adult choices – many will disagree with me on this point, but to me there’s only so much that can be done with child protagonists.
So, this is a strong literary book. It’s very well-written, with enough packed into even short sentences to warrant (and reward) re-reading. The characters are engaging, and their decisions and the ways they are affected by their lives are entirely credible. I did not have a strong emotional connection to the book or find myself thinking about it when not reading it, so maybe it wasn’t the best choice for me; maybe one of Munro’s more recent collections would have inspired a stronger reaction. But I’d certainly recommend it to those who are interested.
THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK - The short story, titled The View from Castle Rock, is also a collection. In this review, my focus is the short story, not the book. The Laidlaws emigrate from Scotland to Canada in 1818. For the first time in their lives, family members board the ship: Old James (father), Andrew (son), Agnes (son’s wife) their infant son (Young James) and siblings (Mary and James). They depart on a sea passage: Agnes gives birth to a girl, Walter documents the voyage in his journal, Young James becomes lost and after a frantic search, Mary finds him. The ship full of emigrants reaches Nova Scotia; amazed by groves of trees, clear shining sky, fresh air and a profusion of sea birds. The sailors fire shots at the birds, point out a whale ship side, passengers break out a fiddle and everyone dances with joy. Near the conclusion Walter has become a close companion to Nettie, a rich girl suffering from tuberculosis. Mr. Carbert, her father, offers Walter a position in Montreal. He refuses, since he means to work the land with his family. The short story and collected book of stories, under the same name, follows Munro’s family history.