Recommendation: One of the best living writers today. It’s worth the purchase to read any words that Munro strings together, but these stories are loosely connected, so it will hit hard for short story lovers but could leave novel lovers underwhelmed.
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You should have heard of Alice Munro, but if you haven’t I don’t actually blame you. Like another great writer, George Saunders, Alice Munro works almost exclusively in short stories. There is no reason for this to effect her popularity, except that the USA has a crazy obsession with novels and has never fully embraced the short story (after all the dream is to write the great American novel, nobody cares about the great American short story collection). Maybe it’s the vine-like sprawl, maybe it’s the narrative shifts, maybe we just assume that a longer story is a better story, but Americans and short story collections do not mix. Well, Munro is Canadian and couldn’t care less about our American obsessions, so she just does her thang and writes heart-wrenching, beautiful stories all the same.
Munro also doesn’t care about your preference for titles that are short or easy to pronounce as Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage makes clear. This story collection deals with pretty varied characters and pretty varied subjects, with love, death, infidelity, and family being mainstays that appear in each story to some degree or another. The writing is almost always perfect, and not just in her ability to describe an event, but in her ability to carry emotion on the wings of each word. My favorite line comes as the closing remark to Munro’s eponymous first story, “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—'” I think that if I could write one sentence as good as that one, I would feel that I had accomplished something with my life.
The best part is that you can expect that quality from Munro in every line, paragraph, page, and story. It just never relents. Once you’re done chewing on an image—BAM!—another powerful moment comes along and socks you in the stomach until you’re gasping for air and then—POW!—a gentle scene caresses your shoulder and wipes the tears from your blue eyes (yes, I know that “POW” is a sound that makes no sense to describe a gentle caress. But I read a lot of comics a couple weeks ago and I’m still going through withdrawal). Munro sticks to the mundane events of life (about the most dramatic thing that happens through these 320 pages is somebody forging a letter), but she brings such honesty, such humanity to the table that her story about attending a funeral is ten times more vivid than James Patterson’s latest Alex Cross book (and when I say James Patterson I, of course, mean one of the nameless hands that does the grunt work and might get tossed a co-author credit. I’m not trying to hate, but you didn’t really think dude was writing eleven novels and six kid’s books a year by himself, right?).
You probably noticed that, even though I’ve been gushing like mad over this collection, I said it might not be the right fit for the novel devotees. Here’s the reason why, I’ve read a couple collections recently that were very tightly coherent in their subject and in the characters that appear (my favorite, Spectacle, and This is How You Lose Her are good examples). For each collection, all the stories will deal with a single subject (societal roles and identity for women, dealing with breakups) and some of the narrators/main characters will reappear to tell more than one tale. They are still short story collections, but they are so fluid that most novel readers won’t be overly disturbed by the format. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage does not fall into that same category. There are themes that appear in most of the stories (not all), but they are seen through a very different lens and contain an entirely different distortion. It is elegant, but it’s an elegance that will be most keenly appreciated by those who hold some familiarity and affection for short stories. It’s not that a novel lover can’t like this book, it’s just that a short story lover is guaranteed to.
I’m not sure how well these pictures are going to translate, but I was really annoyed by the ridiculously small margins set for this book. I know that publishers try to cram every book into the range of 250-350 pages (enough so it looks worth the purchase, but not so much that it looks like a project), but there are so many more aesthetically pleasing ways to go about this than just shoving extra words onto a page. Within limits, you can change the font type, change the font size, change the size of the paperback, change the spacing of the lines and, yes, change the margins. But the key phrase is WITHIN LIMITS. I don’t want to have to open my book wider just so I can see the words that have been smushed into the binding. And honestly, by putting the book out like this, it makes me think that the publisher cares more about marketability than the product itself, and that’s a pretty upsetting message to be sending out there. Oh, and I forgot to mention that this happened on like 15 pages:
Be better than that.