Rose is a young girl who lives at home in a poor Canadian town know as Hanratty. She lives with her step-mother Flo, her father, and her half-brother Brian. In this collection (originally titled, Who Do You Think You Are?), Alice Munro takes the reader through Rose’s life in a series of ten connected short stories beginning as a child through her school years, then as a woman in college, and finally all the way into her middle age. Although the stories move chronologically through her life, they jump forward and backward in time so as to relate experiences to moments that formed her.
The collection opens with four stories about childhood – ranging from what seems around ten years old to high school. The first of these stories, Royal Beatings, depicts the hardships of being raised in a family where physical discipline is expected. While she does not want to accept Flo, her stepmother, as a parent, she still feels the undying need to please her father. The beatings drill into her the seeming impossibility of this desire – but she tries and fails continuously. Whether the reader has experienced these specific events, Munro still perfectly captures certain nostalgic feelings such as the stubborn reluctance and unwillingness to forgive a parent who has wronged you, internally coming to the conclusion that you will never speak to or love them again. She somehow provides the same monologue you have seen yourself run through while lying face down on a bed, and how slowly but surely the effect wears off as the realization occurs that this cannot go on forever. Yet, even with the forgiveness that is bound to come, these beatings and frequent moments of hate, this inability to please, are how the collection opens, signifying them as the first formative moment in Rose’s life. It is one of the first things she learned – she cannot satisfy and so she is harmed.
A bit later in childhood Rose is in school and discusses how poverty affects the actions and desires of the children she has class with. They are more promiscuous, more curious about odd things, and much rowdier than those wealthier students living on the other side of the river. Rose begins to develop an obsession with one of these girls, Cora. Cora is older, and in Rose’s mind, infinitely more mature and beautiful. She wears lip gloss and hangs out with a popular group of girls. Rose’s obsession seems to verge on a sort of love – a form of love that she feels she needs reciprocation for. So Rose steals candy from her family’s own shop to give to Cora, and when Cora brings the candy back, Rose is heartbroken. Again, her desire to please goes without success. She has tried again as she tried with her father, she has given into the possibility of embarrassment and shame, and yet is left without the fulfillment she sought.
Half a Grapefruit
Half a Grapefruit plays with time in a way that shows how Rose uses stories of her past and the pasts of others to make sense of her present. She tells Flo stories of school – how a girl is sleeping around and how another girl left her Kotex in the hallway. And Flo returns this favor, telling stories about her past when she was a child. During all of this storytelling, Rose’s father is dying. He is mostly bedridden and Rose recalls how he viewed her interest in literature, deeming it odd for a girl to be interested in something he believed more masculine. But she sees in him some sort of pleasure that she has taken up a hobby he too loves. The stories continue to meld together, now being told to a group as they wait for the morning to come to take Rose’s father to a hospital some distance away. He will, in some time between this and the next story, pass away, but Rose holds onto that little bit of happiness she gave him at least near the end.
A final story of childhood – Rose now seems in her late teens and is traveling alone by train to Toronto. While on the train, a man dressed as a priest (and who very well may be a priest) begins chatting with Rose while sitting beside her. As he pretends to sleeps, he puts a hand on her leg and starts to grope and molest her. Rose struggles with her feelings – if she makes a scene then what will the people on the train think; will they even believe her? But a more difficult thought occurs to her as she grapples with her own sexual desires. She cannot understand that while she does feel disgusted, she also feels like she doesn’t want to stop him even if it weren’t for the previous reasons. Could that pent-up desire to please which was explored in the previous stories, almost never coming to true fulfillment, have led Rose to deem this assault almost desirable? Desire and disgust thus seem at war in her head and she cannot make sense of what she wants. Wild Swans shows that because of the traumas and self-perceived failures in her early life, Rose is building her own happiness based on the desire of others rather than herself.
The Beggar Maid
These final six stories take place in adulthood, from her as a university student to middle age. Three of them (The Beggar Maid, Mischief, and Simon’s Luck) deal with love, two (Providence and Spelling) deal with family, and the final one (Who Do You Think You Are?) summarizes everything. The first of these, The Beggar Maid, is the first of the two greatest stories Alice Munro had written to date. It tells the story of her first real romantic love – a man named Patrick. He was an intellectual and came from an incredibly wealthy family. Within this story, she finds herself constantly falling in and out of love with him. Her dilemma is that he is trying to change her and she is ever too willing to change for him. Even when their relationship reaches its bottom most points, her desires cannot tear her away from her needs. Rose thinks at one point about their relationship, about marriage: “It was what she had dreamed of; it was not what she wanted” (pg. 81). And she also feels guilt for having lead him on for so long – even guilt towards herself for having wasted so much time. She looks at herself as the painting which Patrick once compared her to, The Beggar Maid, an Arthurian damsel pampered to no end by a knight, but with expectations she cannot fulfill. It may be the first glimmer she sees that tells her she must start living her own life on her own terms, but it has not hit her hard enough just yet.
Despite break-up after break-up, in Mischief, Rose has now married Patrick, yet this inability to make him happy (leading to her own unhappiness) brings her to begin an affair with a friend’s husband, Clifford. It is, for her, love, and she finally begins to feel fulfilled in her own self and in her ability to fulfill someone else. Of course, she feels intense guilt towards Patrick and their daughter, Anna, but even with this guilt she cannot help herself – she has not felt this way since she can remember. When the moment comes to spend the night in a hotel with Clifford, he breaks it off. It is a massive blow to her as she finally feels like both her’s and someone else’s desires had met. Years after her and Patrick’s divorce due to the affair, Rose is still friends with Clifford and his wife. In a scene near the end, they end up all having sex and upon waking up Rose feels disgusted at what they’ve done. Her whole life has been built around the need to please, and now she realizes that others are using the knowledge of her need to their own benefit.
The divorce has gone through and Anna is living with Patrick. Rose lives on her own in a small house and is talking via letters to a man who she wants to meet. One day, Anna comes to stay with Rose a little more long-term. Now, Rose must balance her poorer lifestyle with an attempt to meet this man all while trying to make Anna feel loved and to hopefully convince her to stay. If it’s not obvious by now in this collection, none of this works out for her. A series of inconveniences and coincidences line up to prevent Rose from finally meeting this man, and Anna, who is more used to living with her wealthy father, eventually moves back home. Before this comes a beautiful scene where Rose and Anna count the change that Anna happened to find while at the train station. They have failed to bond much throughout Anna’s time there and now sit on the floor for a moment of happiness. The final moments show Rose looking at a picture of Anna, now back at home with Patrick and his wife, holding a cat – something that Rose could never give her.
Moving on to her final story of romance, Rose is now an actress who teaches at the local college. At a party, she meets another professor named Simon who she brings home that night. When they wake up together, he discusses how they will ensure her garden is successful – he is funny, kind, and does not evoke that same innate desire she has which seems to have caused her such hardship. Simon stops communicating with her and she finds out years later that he had died. Before knowing of his death, this lack of communication sent Rose to leave and do something this time for herself. She packed her bags and left her place to find something better. The scene of action is one of the most brilliant depictions of internal argument – she constantly thinks about turning back, about reaching the next break in the median and changing her mind, about the negatives of her taking this risk. But she also looks back at what living for the happiness of others has done to her. She has been working tirelessly, to utter exhaustion, to please and satisfy everyone around her, and it has left her with no satisfaction towards herself.
This is the second of the two greatest stories Munro had written to date. With the revelation and conclusion that Rose had in the previous story, the final two stories tie up familial ends and give a final reflection on Rose’s decision. Flo has been developing severe arthritis and a form of dementia – likely Alzheimer’s. Rose is tasked with bringing her to the county home and caring for her during the end of her life. Munro explores the frustration caused by caring for someone with Alzheimer’s to a beautiful and heartbreaking degree. Rose seems to have finally found her identity and she is now seeing it disappear through the eyes of Flo. But she is also coming to better love and understand Flo. The story is a reminiscence of their relationship through time and a meditation on language – of the individual word and the complex story. It shows how stories and memories are forgotten and how they come back to remembrance through such inexplicable means.
Who Do You Think You Are?
The question of the title poses Rose’s entire dilemma through the collection – it asks of her identity, and given that she has been living for others up to this point in her life, there is no readily available answer. She begins telling a story of an odd man in Hanratty which takes her down chains of thought to Hanratty itself. Rose remembers sitting in class near a boy named Ralph. Their last names are so close that they’ve been sitting by each other since they can remember. Not only are their names close, but so are their personalities – from how they act to how they tend to put off homework and anxiously finish it at the last minute. She remembers him fondly, in an almost bittersweet missed-chance kind of way, and years later (before her mother’s death but after she was put in the home) she meets him again at an event and briefly chats before she leaves town. It is an almost insignificant event, but even further in her future, as she hears of his death in the paper, the sudden realization hits her. It may be that she has been living her entire life for others in order to escape her past. She has been looking for something far from home and far from what she knows, when the person, or even the place, that could have made her truly happy was that which she knew best.
The Beggar Maid was Alice Munro’s greatest collection to date. It had stories that were some of the most powerful and heartbreaking I’ve ever read. Expertly, she balances these high emotions with moments of laugh-out-loud humor, social discussions of ideas ranging from sex to misogyny, and with her own philosophy on the importance of writing. While the collection seems pessimistic, the last story brings hope. Rose has been working her way to discover her own needs throughout the entirety of these ten stories. Now, she has finally realized what it is she wants, and even though the collection ends here without seeing how she uses this knowledge, it gives that flash of possibility that Rose will now begin to live for herself.
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