In an introduction to Runaway, Jonathan Franzen gives 8 reasons why Alice Munro does not have a wide readership. Some of them are of course linked to the fact that she is a short-stories writer, and that reviewers don’t like to review short stories. I had already written something to that effect in a verbose review on Stephen King’s Everything’s Eventual. Franzen puts it more simply: “Quotations can’t do the book justice and neither can synopsis”. Summing up an Alice Munro’s short story, which is in itself a sketch of a life encompassing regrets, roads not taken, and the whole range of possibilities is a hard task indeed. I will try nonetheless.

In Runaway, a young woman, Carla, who has left her family to follow moody horse instructor Clark, decides to leave him, instead of agreeing to his blackmailing scheme whose victim is a nice widow Carla cleans for, and with whom she developed a friendship. At the same time, she mourns the disappearance of her pet goat Flora.

Next comes the “Juliet” trilogy, three short stories involving the same female character at defining moments of her life. In Chance, she is a young teacher of dead languages on a journey to find her “lover”, a man with an invalid wife she encountered on a train on a previous journey. In Soon, Juliet, who has had a baby girl named Penelope with Eric, the man from the train, visits her parents near Toronto. She feels acceptance, because she followed their advice to “fit in”, but the small community frowns at the fact she is not married. Looking for moments of complicity with her scholarly father, she doesn’t respond to the strength of the love her sick mother has for her, rejecting her to the end. In Silence, life gets back to Juliet when she loses contact with her own daughter, with whom she used to have a close relationship. Penelope joined a cult without explanation, and doesn’t give any news except a birthday card, unsigned, for her own birthday. After years of silence and second-hand news, Juliet resigns herself or rather, she hopes, “but not in any strenuous way”, that one day her daughter will relent. Munro’s women are like reeds that bend but do not break…

In Passion, Grace remembers her relationship with uncharismatic Maury, whose mother she is very fond of. She evokes the day when she jeopardized the relationship by following attractive and drunk-addict Neil, Maury’s half brother. The conclusion doesn’t provide many clues about Grace’s present opinion or potential regrets about her past decision.

Trespasses is the story of Lauren, a little girl with modern parents who wants her to call them by their first names and who have a free relationship. A mystery involves another dead baby in their past. Lauren encounter Delphine, an adult seeking to win her affection, and will learn many half truths before learning the whole one.

In Tricks, Shakespeare theatre lover Robin meets a man from Montenegro after a play. They eat together, talk and kiss, and the man extracts a strange promise from her: he has to leave the country for one year, but the next year, Robin is to come to meet him so they can be together. When Robin visits him, one year later, her shuts the door on her. The explanation, once learnt, years later, is both ironic and dramatic, and not without connection to a Shakespearean plot.

Powers closes the volume by the story of Nancy, herself married “by mistake”, but not unhappily, and worrying about her friend Tessa, who has a gift of foresight, but ironically joins her fate to a man who exploits her gift. Years later, she finds Tessa in a mental hospital, and will learn what happened in stages, by meeting Tessa’s man Ollie some time later she will mostly learn lies, but it is finally through a dream that the whole truth will emerge. The story has a fifty-year span and the first part is a first-person narration (Nancy’s diary), while the rest is a third-person narration, like Munro’s other stories.

My brief synopses of course don’t do justice to these stories, which are about much more than these few sentences lead to believe. In general, they deal with women facing big, life-changing decisions. These women are usually well educated if not scholarly, but they often take the decision to break away from their family, and they preferably chose Mr. Wrong, a man uncharismatic or selfish at best and abusive at worst. These stories provide reflection about roads not taken, hasty decisions, impulsive behaviors and their consequences. Of course, this frame once again is too narrow to encompass everything Munro has to say. As Franzen writes very aptly: “Reading Munro puts me in a state of quiet reflection about my own life. about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death”. In one word, Munro’s stories (one has difficulties calling them short stories, because if they are short in words, they are wide in range), are about life. Ma personal favorites are the three concerning Juliet (I can’t help it, I am a novel lover and these three stories almost seemed like three chapters from a short novel, I could get attached to the main character and enjoyed meeting her again in the next story), and Tricks.

As short-stories writers go, Alice Munro is definitely one of the more gifted and her stories are truly riveting…

Rating: 4/5