Dear Life is my first experience with Alice Munro’s fiction – but it will not be my last.
Munro was born and raised on a “fox and poultry” farm in Ontario and she now lives in Clinton, a little town of approximately 3,000 residents about twenty miles from that farm. Pure and simple, Munro is a short story writer – even her one novel, Lives of Girls and Women, is in the form of a group of interrelated short stories. Dear Life, the thirteenth original short story collection that she has published since her first in 1968, is her first since 2009’s Too Much Happiness. Interestingly, all of her stories seem to be set in the region of Canada in which Munro grew up and lives today.
The stories in Dear Life are not so much plot driven, as they are character driven. They feature strong, but complex, women whose lives are often changed or pushed in entirely new directions by spur of the moment decisions or chance encounters. The reader is reminded that even what appear to be the simplest of lives are not ever so simple to the ones living them.
Strong as the women of Dear Life are, when it comes to men, many of them seem to be attracted to the “bad boy” type – and they usually suffer the consequences. One woman, married and the mother of a little girl, has a sudden fling with a younger man while on a train trip to Toronto to housesit for a friend; a middle-aged woman living alone on remote, broken down farm takes in a soldier who decides to jump off a train near her place; an elderly woman runs off when her husband’s equally elderly old flame re-enters his life; and a rich woman has a long affair with a married man whom she figures out way too late.
In addition, this fourteen-story collection include stories about little girls and one about a confused old woman akin to the kind of tale often found in the classic “Twilight Zone” television series. The collection’s final four stories are set in a separate unit of their own, and are described by the author as “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” These four stories are intriguing snapshots of incidents, one must suppose, that are based on something from Munro’s own life, but rather surprisingly, they do not carry the emotional impact of the earlier stories.
Dear Life is an excellent introduction to Alice Munro’s fiction, to her unforgettable characters and the sheer power of her stories. She is not a novelist but, somehow, her best stories read like mini-novels, and they say as much about the human condition as will be found in most full-length novels.
Alice Munro is a true short story master.