What new can be said about Alice Munro, a writer whose unshowy prose and psychological precision have inspired so many comparisons to a certain Russian literary giant that the author Cynthia Ozick has dubbed her “our Chekhov”?
Well, what’s new is her latest book, “Family Furnishings: Selected Stories.” This extraordinary collection encompasses 24 short stories, from 1998’s “The Love of a Good Woman” to “Dear Life,” published in 2012. A companion volume to “Selected Stories” (1968-1994), this most recent effort returns to familiar territory for the Ontario native, but, through the nuance and generosity with which she draws each character, feels vivid and fresh at every turn.
This is a doorstop of a book, at more than 600 pages, and there is something deeply satisfying about finishing one story and knowing that there are many more to savor. It is particularly illuminating to read the stories in the context of an insightful introduction by Jane Smiley, who asserts that she “cannot read any Alice Munro story without believing every word” — which is exactly how I have felt about Munro’s work over the years.
Starting with her 1968 collection “Dance of the Happy Shades,” Munro has given us 139 stories and one novel, “Lives of Girls and Women,” which she describes as “really just a collection of linked stories.” Much of her work involves intimate portraits of women in rural Canada. Munro’s women grow up and leave home — or they never have the opportunity to leave. They get married and have children, friendships and affairs. And, for nearly all of Munro’s characters, the possibilities of a different life beckon just outside their grasp.
For creating these characters, Munro has received numerous awards, including the Man Booker Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award — and, in 2013, the Nobel Prize for literature. The most recent award was a victory not only for Munro and her admirers but also for the often-overlooked genre of which she is a grand master: the short story.
The secret wish to escape one life to begin another is a preoccupation running through much of Munro’s work, and it turns up again in these selected stories. This motif is nowhere more beautifully explored than in “Runaway,” not only one of Munro’s best stories but one of the greatest stories of our new century. It concerns the relationship between a young woman, Carla, and Sylvia Jamieson, a recently widowed botany professor. The story centers on one fateful afternoon when Sylvia helps Carla plot a secret escape from her husband.
Among the thrills of this story (and others) is Munro’s disdain for literary “rules”: Her shifts in point of view, for example, keep readers on their toes as insights gradually emerge about Carla’s marriage to Clark, a man “who had fights not just with the people he owed money to.” Carla’s motivations and desires shift from scene to scene — just as they do in real life — and we are never quite sure just how dangerous her husband might actually be. By the end, we’re left wondering whether the title refers to Carla running away from home at 18 to marry Clark, or running away from that marriage, or running back to it — or all three.
Munro often flouts the so-called rules in her affinity for zooming right past the moment when we imagine her stories are about to end, pulling us far into the future of her characters’ lives. This expansive use of time is one of the reasons the story “Family Furnishings” is so satisfying. Our narrator once idealized her second cousin, Alfrida, a journalist who “talked to my father about things that were happening in the world, about politics.”
Years later, the narrator attends college in the very city where Alfrida makes her home, only to realize that with time, the sheen of what she had once seen as Alfrida’s worldly glamour has faded and her sadness has become more palpable, feeling as if the woman “had lost all importance in my life.” Many writers would have ended the story there — but Munro keeps going. The narrator, a budding writer, then takes the most painful event that has ever happened to Alfrida and transforms it into a story she later publishes, an act of betrayal that haunts Alfrida for years.
Another of the myriad pleasures in reading this story is that Munro seems uninterested in the rigid distinctions between a narrative’s past and the present, backstory and real time. Rather, she works with time and memory in a way that feels fluid and true to life: An incident that occurred decades ago can feel just as urgent as the conversation a character had with her spouse that very morning.
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