I've heard more than one person call Alice Munro one of (maybe even 'the') best short story writers working today, and I have to concur. I don't read as many short stories as I'd like, but in the last few years I've gotten much better at making a conscious effort to at least dip into collections. It's going to be one of my goals next year to read more--more short stories and more by Alice Munro. If you think you aren't a short story sort of reader, give Alice Munro a try and you may very well change your mind. The Progress of Love is Munro's sixth book (fifth story collection) published in 1986, and it won the Governor General's Award that same year.
There's something really satisfying about reading a story by Alice Munro. You feel like you've been somewhere and seen something, and certainly you feel like you've experienced something. I feel a little voyeuristic when I read a story by Alice Munro, as if I've gotten a glimpse into someone's private world and gotten a little insight into the human condition. And she manages to do all this in as few as thirty pages. I've already written about all but the last three of the stories in the collection, but I wanted to wrap things up and gather a few thoughts about the stories into one post before I move on to another of her books.
The title story, The Progress of Love, 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.
On the surface Lichen is a wonderful character study. It's 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.
Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux is the story of two brothers. It's a quietly revealing sort of story--seemingly placid on the surface but always with Munro, lots going on underneath. Often in an Alice Munro story it feels as though not a lot happens, yet by the end you feel like you've somehow been intimately involved with these characters--lived inside their heads for a while and know them or people like them. Here she slowly builds up to an epiphany of sorts, which is reached by way of a past occurrence that throws light on the characters' actions and behavior.
Miles City, Montana is a story, to take it directly from the narrative--of trust and forgiveness--a lesson that can only be learned through time and experience. The story opens with a death, recalled by the narrator when she was young, and then goes on to relive the experience in an even more intimate and horrifying way.
Some of Alice Munro's stories linger in my mind and Fits is just such a story. It is both interesting and perplexing. Interesting because it deals with a murder-suicide (which kind of feels like unusual ground for an Alice Munro story--but then again maybe not, since I think the point isn't exactly the murder-suicide but how people react to it). Perplexing because the story felt rather open ended.
The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink is another of my favorite stories from the collection. It is a really brilliant story of memory (like so many of her stories seem to often be about) and reality and how closeness can turn into alienation. Once again it's beautifully layered with apparent simplicity, but really quite complex and meaningful.
In Jesse and Meribeth Munro examines the truths and falsehoods of a friendship between two young girls. Once again in this story, Jesse tells of her experience in this friendship from the vantage point of adulthood, though she's looking back over this progression of events as though she's reliving them and firmly back in her young adulthood.
In Eskimo the simple act of people watching on a holiday flight to Tahiti shows the inner workings of one woman's mind. In the story Munro juxtaposes two couples, the narrator who is having an affair with a married man and an Eskimo woman traveling with a much older man. The imaginings of the narrator reveal more about herself than the Eskimo woman's assumed predicament.
"Queer Streak" follows the arc of one woman's life (yes, in one short story Alice Munro can convey an entire lifetime), and how a series of anonymous letters written to her father derailed her love life. But maybe for the better.
"Circle of Prayer" is a story within a story--ostensibly about the death of a schoolfriend of the narrator's daughter, but in reality a meditation on life's larger questions and meanings.
The last story, "White Dump", focuses on a shared memory of three women. Like so many of Munro's stories it is complex and multilayered. Most of the stories in this collection take place in rural Ontario and occasionally in Toronto. She has a knack for evoking the Depression-era (or maybe I just especially like the stories with this historical slant), and often seems to come at a subject from a variety of angles as well she likes to move around in time within a story. There is always more than meets the eye in a Munro story and they call out to be reread and discussed.
I've started reading her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, but with all my other reading at the moment I've not made very good progress so far. I'm hoping to read her newest collection, Dear Life, in January along with Buried in Print who is reading her books in the order they were published.