The Love of a Good Woman
By: Alice Munro
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
All of these eight wonderful stories are about what people will do for love, and the unexpected routes their passion will force them to take.
An old landlady in Vancouver who alarms the just-married narrator with her prim advice about married life – and “the peculiar threat” of a china cabinet that must be washed once a month – is shown to have conspired when young in a crime of passion. A young mother, at the mercy of the “radiant explosion” that comes when she thinks of her secret life, abandons her baby and four-year old to be with her lover in the story “The Children Stay.” A gruff old country doctor in the 1960s is discovered by his daughter to be helping desperate women, his “special patients.” An impetuous young woman meets a visiting Indian student and conceives on a train from Vancouver to Toronto because of “the fact that you couldn’t get condoms around the Calgary station, not for love or money.” An Ontario farm wife’s affair drives her husband to commit a murder; its discovery, years later, will act as a negotiating point for a new, presumably satisfactory, marriage.
The book is clear-eyed about the imperfections of marriage, the clutter of our emotional lives, and the impermanence of love: “Not that that was the end. For we did make up. But we didn’t forgive each other.” Even the shared memories of earlier times prove to be a minefield, and many of the stories track the changes that time brings over generations to families, lovers, and even to friends who share old, intimate secrets about “the prostration of love.”
As always these stories by Alice Munro are shot through with humour, and are as rich as novels. As always the characters in the stories are easily, sometimes uncomfortably, recognizable as people like us. One quote summarizes the delightful surprises that await the reader: “Did you ever think that people’s lives could be like that and end up like this? Well, they can.”
My last Alice Munro book wasn’t a terribly enjoyable read (review) but that hasn’t stopped me from checking out her other story collections as her insights are really quite astounding; quiet but powerful. This collection apparently was a Giller Prize winner and I picked it up late last year as the premises for some of the stories it contained were quite interesting.
The Love of a Good Woman was an interesting mix of stories running on the theme of love, relationships, and marriage. The themes within the story don’t necessarily stick out right away, like in the titular story, where it takes a while for the crux of the story to reveal itself, but I can see how all of the stories run together in this collection. As always, Alice Munro has such a knack for revealing the inner lives of women, of people, of how everyday activities and emotions and habits reveal something about the inner self and chafe against hopes and dreams and feelings and desires. The story could be a meh read for me–and there are a few here–but then I’d come across a paragraph or a sentence that just puts all these thoughts and feelings that these characters have into such clarity that yeah, it just reminds me how worth it it is to read her books.
As I mentioned though, there are hits and misses for me with this collection. There’s only eight stories in this collection but they are on the longer side than usual (or at least, it felt that way) but the ones that stood out for me where “The Love of a Good Woman” (once I got through the first part) and “Cortes Island” (rather suspenseful, that one). “The Children Stay” was frustrating (not a fan of adultery stories) and I felt sorry for Kent in “Jakarta.” The other stories were all right but not terribly memorable or provoking.
While there were hits and misses for me with this novel, The Love of a Good Woman was still an interesting read. I realised you kind of have to be in a particular mood to read Alice Munro’s stories as for the most part they run through some of the same themes and scenarios of fractured relationships of all sorts and that sort of missed opportunity to certain avenues in life. But what makes many of the stories feel different despite of these similar themes–which are sometimes depressing to be honest–are the characters and the headspace they’re at as they go through the respective stories, the lessons and realisations they come across along the way. Much better than the previous Alice Munro book I’ve read but not quite up there as Runaway (review) or Hateship, Friedship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (review).