Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reading Alice Munro For the First Time

Reading outside a comfort zone doesn't get much more outside a comfort zone than Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women was for me. But this is a perfect case study for why reading outside a comfort zone is almost always a good thing. This is a phenomenal book, and I'm surprised it's not more widely read.

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, and since over the last two years or so, I've been reading a ton more short stories (sad to think what I'd been missing all these years by not reading short story collections), I was embarrassed that I'd never read the newly minted Nobel and oft-described Queen of the Short Story.

I chose Lives of Girls and Women because it was Book Riot editor and Alice Munro fan Jeff O'Neal's recommendation for where to start. (Well, the title story anyway.) Though this is often billed as Munro's only novel, it actually consists of a group of connected short stories with the same character, Della, who is telling us about growing up in a small town in rural Ontario in the 1940s and 1950s. These are, for the most part, quiet stories where nothing earth-shattering happens. Della's neighbor answers an ad in the paper for a housekeeper, marries her, and then she leaves. At a funeral, Della bites a mentally challenged woman who tries to drag her in to see the body. Della participates in a school pageant and has her first crush. She has a very weird experience with a male friend her mother's boarder. And finally, she has her first boyfriend and sexual experience.

What's most interesting about these stories — beyond just Munro's prose, which, of course is sparklingly clear and just so easy and enjoyable to read — is how a theme introduced in a previous story becomes the central focus of the next. The stories are in chronological order, but it seems clearer that they're arranged in a thematic progression, which is more important than the chronology. For instance, Del has the typical early-youth struggle with what death is and if there's an afterlife. Then, a later story is focused solely on Del's "quest" to understand religion. In one of the funniest moments in the book, she prays to God to get her out of sewing class as a sign that He exists. But then she realizes the folly here:
"And surely too it was rather petty, rather obvious of God to concern Himself so quickly with such a trivial request? It was almost as if He were showing off. I wanted Him to move in a more mysterious way."
Later, when the older man performs a sex act in front of her (he's a pervert and this is NOT okay), the next story tells of her first relationship, and her trying to come to terms with normal sexuality — whatever that is. In some ways, it's a power struggle.
"Sex seemed to me all surrender —not the woman's to the man but the person's to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility. I would lie washed in these implications, discoveries, like somebody suspended in clear and warm and irresistably moving water, all night." 
Man, how good is that?! So, yes, I really enjoyed reading Munro for the first time. Jeff suggested in his Reading Pathways post that this a "female, Canadian cousin of Catcher in the Rye," and that feels right on the mark to me. So if you've never read Munro, this is, indeed a great place to start. I'm excited to move on to some of her other collections now!


  1. Adding to my wish list as we speak. Thanks!

  2. I have read Munro before but have not read this particular one, which seems superb (I must get it!). My book club has picked her last collection Dear Life to read this month so I'm looking forward to that. I think she is a true master!
    cheers. http://www.thecuecard.com/