Alice Munro's second story, "Lichen", in her collection Progress of Love couldn't be more different than last week's titular story. "Lichen" is presented in a much more straightforward and economical manner with just one flashback at the end, and as the collection was published in 1985 it has what feels like a more contemporary setting. This is a story of a marriage where neither of the pair is depicted in a very favorable light--the woman because she's viewed through the eyes of a critical husband, and the man simply because he's something of a slimy character. But once again Munro gives the story breadth and depth that belie the simplicity of the narration.
Stella and David were married once, but are married no longer. They've remained friends, however, and each year get together for her father's birthday to visit him in a nearby nursing home. David brings along his latest girlfriend, Catherine. Stella reminds me a little of Léa in Colette's The Last of Chéri--when she has decided to simply age gracefully and not worry about a slender figure or of how Chéri will receive her (he, too, had already moved on to another woman).
"'Look at what's happened to Stella,' says David, fuming. 'She's turned into a troll'."
This in response to her grey (white actually) hair, and cushy figure covered only by jeans and a dirty t-shirt.
"David thinks Stella has done this on purpose. It isn't just an acceptance of natural deterioration--oh, no, it's much more. Stella would always dramatize. But it isn't just Stella. There's the sort of woman who has to come bursting out of the female envelope at this age, flaunting fat or an indecent scrawniness, sprouting warts and facial hair, refusing to cover pasty legs, almost gleeful about it, as if this was what she'd wanted to do all along. Manhaters, from the start. You can't say that out loud nowadays."
Stella wasn't David's first wife and already he's ready to move on to his next conquest. He's almost excited at the prospect of getting ready to give Catherine the chop and carries in his pocket a photo of his newest girlfriend. He even goes so far as to use a "walk" after dinner as a pretense to make tracks to a phone booth in order to contact the other 'other woman'.
Stella lives year round in a summer house on Lake Huron where she leads a full, sometimes chaotic and apparently happy life despite being on her own. Whatever David thinks of Stella and her mature and aging body, he hasn't escaped the ravages of time either, as Catherine confides in Stella that David dyes his hair and had been tilting his head just so, so Stella wouldn't notice.
"I think he was afraid you'd say something. He's slightly afraid of you." (Catherine says).
And it's the knowledge of just what secrets, and worse what shortcomings of David, are stored up in Stella's mind and memory that make it (rather made it) impossible for them to be together.
I suspect there is much more to this story that I'm missing, but on the surface it's a wonderful character study. I'm reading The Progress of Love in tandem with Buried in Print and am looking forward to her take on the story (the beauty of reading along is getting more than on perspective and a different view on the same story).
Next up: Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux