The nice thing about reading a book (or short story in this case) along with another reader is being able to bump ideas around and get different perspectives on what's really going on below the surface. I've come to realize very quickly that with Alice Munro that there is always something more going on below the surface. Sure you can just read for enjoyment, but I somehow feel I'm getting just a little more insight into the human predicament by trying to figure out the motivations or inner world of a character.
In "Eskimo" from the collection The Progress of Love the simple act of people watching on a holiday flight to Tahiti shows the inner workings of one woman's mind. I'm not sure I have any answers really, but I feel like I am at least getting better at formulating the questions when it comes to Munro's intentions.
Alice Munro is very good at telling a story within a story within a story, or another way of putting it--presenting a story in a complex manner that doesn't really feel all that complex at first. It's only when you step back and really look at what's actually happened do you see the set up. And she often tells her stories in a way that you're thinking they are about one thing when really it's the way the story is refracted back on the narrator that's the focus of it all.
Mary Jo is a nurse who grew up in a small town in Huron County. After she had her nursing degree for a few years she began working in a Toronto office for Dr. Streeter, and man she admires enormously, and with whom she's been carrying on an affair with. She lives above the surgery and has been slowly making efforts to improve her looks--lightening her hair, fixing her teeth, which she had always been self-conscious about, and buying new clothes. Dr. Streeter doesn't seem to mind--he jokes with her that she had better not get "too glamorous". The trip to Tahiti is his gift to her, but it's not a secret rendezvous as the doctor's daughter knows all about the trip. Maybe not the affair.
The story is told from Mary Jo's perspective. She thinks about her relationship with the doctor, and her conversations with his daughter. About the doctor's wife who is always "working on" some new project or person. But mostly she watches and thinks about the people on the plane around her. The harmless families with their fuss and accumulation of things ("what accumulation and display and satisfaction, just because they have managed to reproduce").
It's one couple in particular, however, that catches Mary Jo's interest and attention. An older well dressed man with a younger woman who wears a childish ponytail and eyes with a definite slant. She imagines them to be foreign, maybe even from Afghanistan, and has in her mind created a whole story around them. But it turns out they are Canadian just like she is. The young woman tells Mary Jo she's 'Eskimo' and the man is métis. Mary Jo can't help but think that surely that's not the proper word anymore, rather it's 'Inuit'. The pair seem to be quarreling and the girl admits to being only sixteen. When she shows concern for the girl and offers help, she's subtly rebuffed. And she imagines Dr. Streeter would think it is just self-indulgent good intentions that do more harm than good.
I can't help but think there is something about the juxtaposition of the two couples--Mary Jo and Dr. Streeter and the man and young woman that Munro is getting at. But this is a story that leaves me with more questions than answers. Even enigmatically, Munro tells a good story, though like Mary Jo I think I'd prefer to go to Greece or Scandinavia or Ireland over Tahiti, too.
Next up is "A Queer Streak". Only three stories left in my first collection of stories by Alice Munro. And still many more stories to explore.