The Love of a Good Woman: Stories
|Publisher:||Alfred A. Knopf|
In eight new stories, a master of the form extends and magnifies her great themes—the vagaries of love, the passion that leads down unexpected paths, the chaos hovering just under the surface of things, and the strange, often comical desires of the human heart.
Time stretches out in some of the stories: a man and a woman look back forty years to the summer they met—the summer, as it turns out, that the true nature of their lives was revealed. In others time is telescoped: a young girl finds in the course of an evening that the mother she adores, and whose fluttery sexuality she hopes to emulate, will not sustain her—she must count on herself.
Some choices are made—in a will, in a decision to leave home—with irrevocable and surprising consequences. At other times disaster is courted or barely skirted: when a mother has a startling dream about her baby; when a woman, driving her grandchildren to visit the lakeside haunts of her youth, starts a game that could have dangerous consequences. The rich layering that gives Alice Munro’s work so strong a sense of life is particularly apparent in the title story, in which the death of a local optometrist brings an entire town into focus—from the preadolescent boys who find his body, to the man who probably killed him, to the woman who must decide what to do about what she might know. Large, moving, profound—these are stories that extend the limits of fiction.
In the world of Alice Munro, the best route is not necessarily the shortest distance between two points. In her ninth superlative collection of short fiction, The Love of a Good Woman, the setting is once again western Canada, and the subject matter is classic Munro: secrets, love, betrayal, and the stuff of ordinary lives. But as is usual for this master of the short form, the path she takes is anything but ordinary. The stunning title story is a case in point. A narrative in four parts, it begins with the drowning of a small-town optometrist and ripples outward, touching first the boys who find the body, then a spiteful dying woman and her young practical nurse. Whose tale is this, anyway? Not the optometrist’s, surely, though his death holds it together. The effect is not exactly Rashomon-like either, though each of the sections views him through a different eye. Instead, “The Love of a Good Woman” is as thorough and inclusive a portrait of small-town life as can be imagined—its tensions and its deceit, its involuntary bonds. Within its 75 pages it encompasses a world more capacious than that of most novels.
As always, Munro’s prose is both simple and moving, as when the letter-writing protagonist of “Before the Change” sends her love to an ex-fiancé:
What if people really did that—sent their love through the mail to get rid of it? What would it be that they sent? A box of chocolates with centers like the yolks of turkey’s eggs. A mud doll with hollow eye sockets. A heap of roses slightly more fragrant than rotten. A package wrapped in bloody newspaper that nobody would want to open.
The fictions in this volume burn with a kind of dry-eyed anti-romanticism—even the ones whose plots verge on domestic melodrama (a baby’s near-death in “My Mother’s Dream”; an adulterous wife in “The Children Stay”). Densely populated, elliptical in construction, each story circles around its principal events and relationships like planets around a sun. The result is layered and complex, its patterns not always apparent on first reading: in other words, something like life. —Mary Park