That’s quite a mouthful for the title of a book, and unfortunately instantly forgettable if someone asked you “What was that Alice Munro book of short stories that you read?” I read this book as part of a book club read and although we all enjoyed the stories enough while we were reading them, we found it very hard to remember enough details to discuss the stories in any depth. I often find this with short stories, although I enjoyed the longer length of these nine stories (most of about 30 to 40 pages in length). They were was long enough to become engrossed in the characters and too long to just turn to the next story once you had finished.
As you can see, Munro writes of a particular milieu- Canadian, middle-class, middle-aged- with a particular sympathy towards women. The stories are a bit like a short-form Anne Tyler, and I was not particularly aware of a distinctive narrative voice to distinguish one story from another. Perhaps this is why I, and my fellow book-clubbers, could not really remember the stories as discrete entities when we came to discuss them. We could remember particular events or people- but which story were they from?
So, indulge me while I summarize the stories so that I can remember them in the future- and beware of spoilers!
The title story ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship and Marriage’ is set “years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines”. Johanna is a middle-aged, rather plain woman who is working as domestic help for Mr McCauley, who is caring for his teenaged daughter Sabitha. Sabitha’s mother has died, and her father Ken Boudreau lives at some distance, writing occasionally to his former father-in-law for money. Sabitha and her friend Edith, intercept Ken’s letters and devise a hoax whereby Ken declares his love for the rather drab Johanna. Johanna takes her meagre savings and goes to Ken, who is oblivious to the letters that Johanna has received that have been written under his name. But Johanna has the last laugh: on meeting the rather pathetic Ken, she turns to caring for him instead, marries and has a child.
In ‘Floating Bridge’ middle-aged Jinny is returning home from an appointment with her oncologist. Her husband Neal, is brazenly flirting with Helen, a young woman whom they have hired to help around the house during Jinny’s chemotherapy regime. Neal insists on driving the sullen Helen to her home, and staying there for dinner, leaving his frail and washed- out wife to wait in the car. But Jinny has not received bad news from her doctor: instead her cancer is in remission, and she is no longer facing death. When a young man, Ricky, approaches her while she is waiting in the car, she acquiesces in going with him into the fields, where he kisses her on a floating pontoon bridge over a lagoon. She laughs.
‘Family Furnishings’ is about Alfrida, who is a journalist who writes several columns under different pen names in the local paper – Round and About the Town, and Flora Simpson Housewives’ Page. Her cousin and his wife and their young daughter, the narrator, were rather in awe of her, and referred to Alfrida as a career girl. As the narrator grows older, she goes to university in the same town where Alfrida is living, but she resists going to visit her. When she finally does, she is struck by Alfrida’s poverty and lack of sophistication. The narrator takes a story from Alfrida’s childhood and becomes a successful writer, a form of theft that Alfrida grudgingly admired.
In ‘Comfort’, a woman returns from her tennis match to find that her husband, who had been suffering from a neurological illness, has committed suicide. A teacher at the local high school, he had been increasingly targetted by fundamentalist Christian students and their teachers and forced to resign. She searches for a suicide note and removes all signs of suicide before calling the local undertaker, with whom she had gone to school. It is the undertaker who finds a note in Lewis’ pyjama pocket- a bitter and sarcastic note in riposte to his critics.
In ‘Nettles’ a woman recalls a boy she was friends with when they were both children. He was the son of a well-digger, who came round each year to work on the wells in their town. She meets him again, years later, at the house of a mutual friend. Even though he is married, the attraction she felt for him years ago is still there. They go for a walk along the golf course, and get caught in a sudden storm. He divulges a tragedy that he and his wife have faced, and she knows that their relationship will go no further. When they return home, their legs are itchy with welts from the nettles and weeds in which they took shelter.
In ‘Post and Beam’ Lorna recalls many years ago, when she, her husband Brendan and two children were living in an architecturally distinctive Post and Beam house. Brendan is a university lecturer and one of his most brilliant students was Lionel, who had a nervous breakdown. Lionel now works for the church, and is poorly paid and still troubled and he starts writing poetry to Lorna. Lorna’s cousin Polly, five years her elder, comes to stay with them and is needily judgmental of Lorna’s life. When Lorna and Brendan have a weekend away for a wedding, Lorna is terrified that Polly will have committed suicide in their absence, and she makes a deal with God- or whoever. The deal is not honoured, and life goes on.
‘What is Remembered’ is set in Vancouver and Meriel and her husband Pierre are travelling to a funeral for Pierre’s best friend Jonah. Meriel decides to visit her elderly Aunt Muriel at a nearby nursing home, then return home later that night. Dr Asher offers to drive her there, and he accompanies her into the nursing home. They have a brief dalliance that he puts a firm end to, and they go their separate ways. She remains married to Pierre, but is always aware of that other life that she could have had.
‘Queenie’ and Chrissy are step-sisters, but Queenie suddenly leaves home and runs away with the widowed older man next door, Mr. Vorguilla. After eighteen months, Chrissy finds out where Queenie is living, and comes to stay with her before starting Teachers College the next year. Mr Vorguilla is emotionally coercive and mean, gaslighting Queenie over a Christmas cake that she had saved money to buy. As Chrissy goes on to her life as a teacher, marries, has children, and travels in retirement, she learns that Queenie has left her husband. She thinks that she glimpses her in different places, but is never quite sure.
The first and last stories in this book were both made into films, and they are the strongest stories in the collection. They were, too, the only ones that we were able to remember well enough to discuss. ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ was adapted into the film ‘Away from Her’. Fiona and Grant had a long, happy marriage, but when her Alzheimers forces him to place her in care, she transfers her affections to another patient, Aubrey. When Aubrey’s wife Marian can no longer afford to keep him in care, she takes him home and Fiona is heartbroken. Grant meets with Marian, and starts up a relationship with her in the hope that this is a way that Fiona and Aubrey can meet again. The ending was ambiguously written.
As you can see, there is a sameness about these stories. Munro was awarded a Booker International, which is for a body of work, and I can see that she is insightful and masterful in weaving real complexity and emotional truth into a short work. I think that her writing would appeal much more to older than younger readers, and she has a compassion and indulgent tolerance for the mis-steps and compromises that we all make to keep living. Perhaps compiling such similar stories into one volume does them a disservice. Perhaps they are better left as they were originally published- many of them in the New Yorker and other magazines- where their similarities are less obvious and where they can stand alone and their strengths shine.
My rating: 7/10
Sourced from: CAE bookgroups (aka The Ladies Who Say Oooh)
I read that years ago and loved it – I read quite a number of Munro’s collections but she was pretty prolific. Brilliant.
I don’t know about older readers – though I haven’t read this collection yet – but I fell in some with Munro in my 30s. (Unless her work has changed a lot?)