IT’S A BUSY Monday morning and publisher Douglas Gibson is on the phone puzzling over why Juliet, a seemingly devoted single mother, has been treated so shockingly by her grown daughter. “It’s the mounting horror of it all,” he muses, “and yet if you go back and look at the way Juliet dealt with her own mother. . .” There is a slightly embarrassed laugh as both Gibson and his caller realize they are not actually talking about real people but about characters in a story in Runaway, the new collection by Alice Munro. They might as well be real, though. Like all of Munro’s previous, award-winning short story collections—which prompted The Atlantic Monthly to call her “the living writer most likely to be read in 100 years”— Runaway is filled with memorable, if increasingly eccentric, characters whose lives unfold in astonishing ways.
Juliet, who inhabits a triptych of stories (“Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence”) in the book, is a young classics teacher with some of the hallmarks of Munro’s earlier heroines. She’s the smartest girl in a small town, and her intelligence sticks out like a “limp or an extra thumb.” Juliet moves away, takes a huge chance on love after meeting a man on a train and, when she visits home, unmarried with a small daughter, rails at the narrowmindedness that causes her parents to suggest she disembark one town over so that no one will see her just yet. “You don’t realize just how stupid this is and what a disgusting place this is to live in,” she says.
In these often discomfiting stories, three of which have never been published before (the author’s work usually appears first in The New Yorker), Munro’s heroines are as varied as Carla, a young, emotionally abused wife
who, in the title story’s climate of increasing menace, attempts to run away, and Lauren, the 14year-old girl in “Trespasses,” who is commandeered by an odd hotel clerk who believes she has a special claim on her. Then there is Robin in “Tricks,” a single woman who takes a train once a year to Stratford to see a Shakespeare play. Robin eats dinner alone afterward, and “those few hours filled her with an assurance that the life she was going back to, which seemed so makeshift and unsatisfactory, was only temporary and could easily be put up with. And there was a radiance behind it... expressed by the sunlight seen through the train windows.”
Robin gets caught up in her own tragicomic Shakespearean plot, and here Munro takes curious chances with a narrative twist that strains credulity until you think, well, if Shakespeare could use this device why can’t Munro? The slightly gimmicky ending pales anyway beside the emotion clutching at the gut, the lost opportunity for love.
Alice Munro is 73 now, and after a serious heart operation two years ago, she’s writing “faster than ever,” says Gibson, her
long-time editor. No gentling has taken place, no falling down in fierceness. If anything, there’s a defiance to her insights. In “Powers,” a woman named Nancy inwardly mocks men who characterize life as “indeed a bumpy road, but misfortunes had pointed the way to better things, lessons were learned and without a doubt joy came in the morning.” In Munro’s fictional morning, you’re likely to find the aftermath of a revelatory dream that turns everything to “soot and soft ash,” or a painfully unresolved mother-daughter mess, or something unmentionable hovering just beyond the landscape of daily life.
But Munro is not one bit bleak; she is steadfast, lucid, occasionally funny and thrillingly honest. An elderly woman, startled by her reflection in a window, stares at the “angry-looking, wrinkled-up almost teary” stranger before her and then “promptly began to cast around for hope, as if there were not a minute to lose.” In Alice Munro’s hands, the smallest moments contain the central truths of a lifetime, in which disaster, honesty and hope are teased out as if indeed there was not a minute to lose. lifl
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