I really like the idea of reading the entire body of work of one author, and more so the body of work in the order that it was written. I very loosely am doing just that with a number of writers (I want to read all of Elizabeth Taylor's books and everything by Daphne du Maurier for instance, though what I've read is mostly just a jumble and over extended periods of time), and I did set myself the task of reading Molly Keane from start to finish, though I've hit a stumbling block that has nothing to do with Molly and everything with the towering pile of current reads on my bedside table. I will get back to her before the year is out, though!
Not to be deterred, however, I've decided to join in the ongoing reading project undertaken by Buried in Print, who is reading Alice Munro's work in order. I really love short stories in general and Alice Munro in particular. She's the sort of writer who when I first read her, I liked her so much that I decided to start "collecting" her books (how many times has that happened--I do a lot of collecting it seems). I don't own all of them, but quite a few line by bookshelves. Munro has about seventeen books published with a new book forthcoming this fall. I believe that all but one are story collections. The other is a novel, which I read so long ago that it has since faded from memory. I'm jumping in a little late, as The Progress of Love is her sixth book, so I'll have missed her earliest stories, but someday I'd like to go back and fill in the gap. The nice thing about short stories is you can read a story and then set the book aside for a week and not feel lost when you pick it up again. This collection has eleven stories, and reading it will take me through the rest of this year.
This week's instalment is the titular story, "The Progress of Love". It is an intergenerational story told from the perspective of a daughter looking back on the memory of her mother when she discovers she has passed away. In turn that memory opens out to yet another memory of her mother thinking back on her own youth. Although the story seems to move around in time it's Phemie's memories building upon each other and revealing an occurrence in her childhood, and with each fresh recollection the reader sees how memory can trick us and how perceptions are often so different than reality and from the reality of those around us.
What I love about about an Alice Munro story is when you've read one, you feel like you've really been somewhere or learned something. You've traveled a distance and the world has changed in the journey from one point to the next. Her stories are complex and her characters are well developed. And you can easily read the same story twice and continue to discover new things about it. By pure chance Jeffrey Eugenides answered the recent NYT By the Book Q&A and he had this to say about Munro:
"Munro’s prose has such a surface propriety that you’re never prepared for the shocking places her stories take you. She pulls off technical feats, too, like changing the point of view in each section of a single story. This is nearly impossible to do while carrying the necessary narrative freight forward, but she makes it look easy. Most readers don’t notice how technically inventive Munro is because her storytelling and characterization overwhelm their attention."
High praise indeed! As for the story . . .
Phemie is a divorced mother of two boys who works in a real estate office. When her father phones her with the news of her mother's death she remembers her as being a very religious woman who prayed three times a day. One of her first recollections in the story goes back to 1947 when she was studying to take an exam in order to pass into high school, though there is little chance and even less money that will allow her that luxury. It's also the year that preparations were being made for her aunt Beryl's visit, around which the story hinges and truths will be revealed.
From there the reader is transported back a little further into Marietta's (Phemie's mother) girlhood. In a startling act a truth is revealed about her parent's marriage, which will cause an eventual rift between daughter and father. This in turn will have repercussions on her own relationship with her daughter Phemie. And it's one action viewed through the lens of childhood and misremembered that forms the heart of the story. The truth, or maybe a different truth, or perspective, is shown that summer when Beryl returns home. When the family begins sharing memories and telling their stories, Phemie realizes a memory etched so deeply turns out to be falsely remembered. I suppose ultimately the stor is about forgiveness (the progress of love?) and how human behavior can be so contradictory.
Sorry, I'm being awfully vague here. It's tricky to write about a Munro story since there are so many layers of complexity to it and the structure does nothing to help in the explanation. The question is to share details or not, but this is such a good story I recommend finding a copy and reading it yourself! So you see, so much to mine in an Alice Munro story--you can read her for enjoyment but there is so much more to her. Next week: "The Lichen".