Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Novels have an architecture readers expect. The arc. A beginning, a middle of rising action, a climax of peak intensity, and action falling to a satisfying end.  

Many short stories have that same architecture, but Munro’s don’t. Her architecture is like a chocolate covered cherry (messy to eat, rich, with a lingering aftertaste. Not to be eaten by the handful).  

Think of the chocolate shell as the narration that swirls around, accessing the thoughts of multiple characters in a single story, and folding back and forth from past to present to past. Think of the creamy cordial inside as the life of southwestern Ontario where Munro lives – forests and lakes, farms, small towns, distances covered by trains, cities. Characters she knew or imagined. Think of the cherry as the treasure – the Ah ha! moment, cradled gently by the cordial and given shape by the chocolate shell.  

The Ah ha! moment happens to the reader as it happens to the character. For example, in “Corrie,” the main character, wealthy Corrie Carlton, attends the funeral of a woman, Lillian Wolfe, who worked in the village years ago. Indeed, she worked briefly in the Carlton household and subsequently found a way to blackmail Corrie and her married lover. When Corrie gets trapped into attending Lillian’s funeral reception, she is unsettled by the universal affection in which Lillian is held. The next morning, Corrie wakes up recognizing she has been ensnared for years in the most outrageous lie. As this awful moment of awareness comes to Corrie, a gut feeling of recognition and identification also comes to the reader. (“There’s always one morning when you realize that the birds have all gone. She knows something. She has found it in her sleep.”) And the reader has bitten into the cherry.  

Likewise, at the end of “Gravel”, neither the genderless narrator nor the reader knows what really took place that dreadful day when Caro and Blitzee drowned. But Munro has stroked the universal cloudiness of early childhood memories and stirred unease and guilt in the reader.  

In these rich, evocative, stories that are as packed with meaning as a novel, Munro revels in the ordinary: her own time and place. She writes about soldiers returning home after World War II (“Train”). She writes about the closing of factories and shifts in the class system (“Pride). She shows us the perfect post-war wife – rigid in housekeeping, wanton in bed (“Haven”). She writes about the sexual revolution and its effect on children (“To Reach Japan”). She writes about drugs, divorce, the fragility of the family, and growing old.  

Munro’s characters are never totally worthy. Some are selfish (the mothers in “To Reach Japan” and “Gravel”). Some are exploitative (the gigolo in “Corrie”). Some can’t bond (the narrator in “Train”). Some are irresponsible (Neal in “Gravel”). Munro seems to understand the condition of being broken, and the need to forgive. Even ourselves.  

At the end of the last not-quite story, “Dear Life,” Munro confesses guilt for not returning home for her mother’s last illness or funeral. She writes, “We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do – we do it all the time.”  

These are the closing words in the closing book of a long, distinguished, Nobel Prize winning career. The ten stories and four almost-stories are told as only Munro could tell them. They are a celebration of dear life and an affirmation of our common humanity.  

— Sharelle Byers Moranville

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