In this collection, seemingly insignificant life events pile up in the characters’ lives, forcing them to realize that these moments are what life is made of – allowing them to look back in time to explore their lives or the lives of those they’ve lost. Alice Munro creates a tapestry of characters experiencing these memories, shuffling through them to better understand family, friends, life, and various new feminist ideas ranging from sexuality to independence.
Out of Munro’s first three collections, this one has by far the three best stories yet: The Ottawa Valley, Memorial, and How I Met My Husband. It also has a variety of others that are at least on par with the genius of her previous work: Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, The Spanish Lady, Material, Tell Me Yes or No, and The Found Boat. The collection overall though is a little more uneven than the previous two, as the lesser stories may be my least favorite that I’ve read by her (but of course, still very good stories). But this is almost insignificant because the high points of the collection are so nearly perfect that they take away your breath and bring you to tears.
The best story was The Ottawa Valley. In it, the main character walks through moments of her life with her mother that, at the time she experienced them, seemed almost entirely mundane – even annoying. She pesters her mother to give her a safety pin, listens to a humorous story about a prank her mother played on a farm boy, and reimagines their time spent in the train stations. All through these recollections, she tries to come to understand her mother and why she tried to hide her disease soon before dying of Parkinson’s. And she knows that no matter how much she digs through her past and writes about it she “could go on, and on, applying what skills I have, using what tricks I know, and it would always be the same.” The story is one of the few short stories I would consider perfect, as she invokes awe at her ability to paint a scene that is so simple on the surface, but so complex underneath.
Memorial was another great exploration of death. This time Munro places two sisters in the same house, one visiting the other for the memorial of her recently killed son. The main character watches as her sister insists on staying busy and organizing everything herself. It pins their personalities against each other and once again uses memory (this time the memory of the death of their father) to explore why each of them now deals with death in a completely different fashion. Munro also unapologetically creates entirely imperfect, grey characters, allowing us to both condemn and understand.
The other best story of the collection, How I Met My Husband, had a completely different tone to it. It was a wonderful story full of new feminist ideas, but it was also far more light-hearted and happy (a relief after some very depressing ones before it). The story gave us a very young main character working as a nanny for a wealthier family. It shows her love affair with a married pilot and explores cheating, slut-shaming, and societal expectations for women. All of this is done so well without preaching, and the story finishes with one of the most take-your-breath-away last paragraphs that is so happy and sweet it will bring you to tears.
The next tier of stories in the collection are all still some of the best I’ve recently read. Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You pins two sisters against each other once again, ending in one sister’s suicide and using the memory of their brother’s death to evoke an air of mystery. The Spanish Lady shows a couple cheating on each other and how it takes a toll on both parties – but also again uses memory to depict the endless cycle of this lifestyle which will always inevitably end in death. Material is a showcase of how Munro (or any author) gets the material for her work, but also is an amazing depiction of the seemingly minor domestic spats that can eventually lead to divorce. Tell Me Yes or No gives us a possibly insane character, who has been wronged by a one time married lover, and now tells herself stories and lies to cope. Finally, The Found Boat is a look at memory in childhood – the seemingly endless summers – and how life between boys and girls exists before sexuality takes root.
The final stories were all still good, but I found them to be lesser than any other’s I’ve read by Munro. Walking on Water and Forgiveness in Families had some odd parts about the more spiritual and astrological qualities of her characters that I did not connect as much with. Both still did explore the themes incredibly well, but without being able to connect with the characters, I did not find them as enjoyable. Executioners, Marrakesh, and Winter Wind included large sections that I could not fully understand the relevance of, but they may simply need a reread sometime in the future.
In Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, Alice Munro again proves that she is one of the best modern authors, and in my opinion, by far the best living short story writer. She creates complex, realistic characters in so few pages, and produces such a powerful and universal story for each of them. Munro gives voice to what many people would consider “ordinary” women with “ordinary” lives, and argues that no life is ordinary if you look deep enough. Finally, her writing is so powerful that she really is one of the only authors I’ve found who can so regularly bring me to tears. I’ve even heard she gets better in future works, so I’m incredibly excited to explore those soon. I’ll finish with one of my favorite quotes for the collection:
And how often talking to both men and women I hear myself in witty and rueful pursuit of this theme – how women build their castles on foundations hardly strong enough to support a night’s shelter; how women deceive themselves and uselessly suffer, being exploitable because of the emptiness of their lives and some deep – but indefinable, and not final! – flaw in themselves. And further and further along this line which everybody is learning these days like the heart in a song. Meanwhile my heart is cracked, also like the heart in a song, it is dry and cracked like a bare bit of landscape marked with gullies.
Tell Me Yes or No, Alice Munro
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