Where to Start with Literary Bliss: An Alice Munro Primer

Alice Munro/Photo © Derek Shapton

Just before Christmas last year, I impulsively bought myself Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro. I thought I’d already read most of the stories in the collection but it turns out I hadn’t, and a line from the story “The Children Stay” stuck with me for months after. It was, simply, “The children stay”: three words delivered with an emotional punch that shifts things irrevocably for the main character, with a finality that feels surprising, dreadful and inevitable all at once.

This is the case for many of Munro’s stories – certain passages that light up, even if other details from the plot can fade from memory. The masterful Canadian short story writer was born July 10, 1931, and though many of her stories take place in her native Ontario and can reflect a tension between country and city life, her themes – love, friendship, betrayal, growing up, growing older, loss – are timeless and span continents. Like the memorable passages that haunt me, her work captures something essential about being human that can be a comfort, even if the material can be heavy.

In honor of the beloved author’s eighty-fifth birthday, here are some of those passages and their corresponding story – a place to start for those lucky enough to be on the verge of discovery.

“Do you think it would be fun—“ Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”

He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.”

From: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” originally published in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship Marriage

Many stories are about young love, the start of a relationship, or the road to marriage. But in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a story that lingers, readers are introduced to long-married couple Grant and Fiona as Fiona, at seventy, is beginning to show signs of dementia. Reluctantly, Grant places her in a nursing home where she can be better cared for, and tries to adjust as he witnesses a close relationship develop between Fiona and another resident. Even though he never stopped loving her, Grant was not faithful throughout their marriage, and the change in Fiona causes him to reflect on his infidelities and the ways he came up short. When Fiona’s friend Aubrey leaves the home, causing a decline in Fiona’s health, Grant will do whatever he can to ensure Fiona’s happiness, and his nobleness and unselfishness in this phase of their life together is perhaps uncharacteristic of his behavior earlier in life. (Another fine line arrives here: “Because if she let go of her grief even for a minute it would only hit her harder when she bumped into it again.”) It’s a touching story of enduring love and hard occasions to rise to, and was beautifully adapted into the 2006 Sarah Polley film “Away From Her.”

Ignoring her mother, she wrote, “You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know—“

She paused, chewing her pencil, then finished off with a chill of satisfaction, “—what fate has in store for me, or for you—“

From: “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” also from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

This passage encapsulates many of Munro’s stories, which veer in unexpected directions. A story seems as though it may be about one thing – “Nettles” and “Jakarta” (both can be found in Family Furnishings), come to mind – and are quite suddenly about something else entirely, which happens pretty often in life, too. This passage is from a story about a child’s cruel prank on her caretaker. In a different writer’s hands, it could have led to simple hijinks – in Munro’s hands, the consequences are brilliant and revelatory.                                                                                                                                                      

“No wonder she was feeling clammy. She had gone under a wave, which nobody else had noticed. You could say anything you liked about what had happened — but what it amounted to was going under a wave. She had gone under and through it and was left with a cold sheen on her skin, a beating in her ears, a cavity in her chest, and revolt in her stomach. It was anarchy she was up against — a devouring muddle. Sudden holes and impromptu tricks and radiant vanishing consolations.”

From: “Carried Away,” from the collection Open Secrets

“Carried Away” tells the story of a woman named Louisa who is passing through a town and decides to accept a position as the town librarian. She begins receiving letters from a soldier she does not recall meeting, who is now fighting overseas in World War I. He knew Louisa from his visits to the library, falling for her but too shy to speak. Tragedy strikes, but as per the usual with Munro’s stories, not in the way you’d expect it. Sometimes, the tragedy is just the way the years can unfold and the chance accidents or bad luck that can happen to anyone. The fifty-one-page story is as epic in scope as a large novel, and contains the heavy hand of fate and life’s interconnectedness, as a woman who goes against societal conventions finds her footing in life.

The passage excerpted arrives following an unusual and otherworldly encounter Louisa experiences later in life, a little after World War II. The writing is visceral, and reading it evokes a similar feeling to going under a wave – you can practically taste the saltwater and feel the discombobulation of that tumbling most of us have experienced on a shoreline after getting knocked about. Once you read the line in the full context of the story, it could break your heart.

“The fog had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then condensing itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hell-bent, something like a giant unicorn, rushing at them.”

From: “Runaway,” from the collection Runaway

“Runaway” was one of the first Munro stories I’d ever read. It was the first story I had luck with, after struggling to get through a story a few years earlier. (It’s worth noting here that starting to read Munro may require some patience, given the rich layers and complexities of her narratives.) On the surface, “Runaway” is a story about a bad marriage, a misbegotten scheme, and how a young woman’s childish impulsivity has shaped her life. When I recently reread it after more than ten years, some of the plot felt new to me, but I remembered the way this one paragraph made me sit up – it arrives as a man may be threatening a woman he feels has meddled in his marriage, and the image pauses their encounter, a stroke of luck for the woman The story reveals the heavy knowledge people put aside in order to keep on going, and how the tension of a moment can burst and change course when something unexpected happens.

Till it came to me one day there were women doing this with their lives, all over. There were women just waiting and waiting by mailboxes for one letter or another. I imagined me making this journey day after day and year after year, and my hair starting to go gray, and I thought, I was never made to go on like that. So I stopped meeting the mail.”

From: “How I Met My Husband” from the collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You

Need I say more? Who hasn’t checked their email or their phone for a text that isn’t coming? But who describes the experience in such a dry, honest, and direct way better – and what you might learn from it – than Munro?

These are just a few lines from a writer with more than a dozen books and so many perfect stories. Start with these, but don’t hesitate to get lost inside any of her many collections. I alternate the collections on my night stand among Friend of My Youth, Vintage Munro, Open Secrets, and others and pick a story at random when the mood strikes me, which is often, and I have never been disappointed. I’m surprised still at so many of her stories, some that I’ve already read before. Some are quicker than others – The Moons of Jupiter is not long but terrific – and some are more layered.  Each contains an entire dark but lovely universe that is so rewarding and won’t let go.