Dear Life

By Alice Munro

Alfred A. Knopf | November2012 | 319 pages | $26.95

An Essay by Sally Cobau

With Alice Munro’s new book, Dear Life, she continues to explore the themes she has delved into throughout her long career, namely regret, desire, greed, love, and passion.  This book seems to come “full circle” for Munro and is reminiscent of her earliest stories. 

As a young author she often wrote about childhood and the way our childhoods remain mysterious because as children we do not have the knowledge or experience to understand what has happened.  Children look at an event and try to decipher what the event means, its significance.
As the children age, they look back at the event and see that they were wrong; or, at least the certainty they had about the event has been shaken.   

Alice Munro’s terrain is rural Canada, where the harshness of the landscape makes for a certain stoicism in her characters.  But underneath this steeliness, the characters are as restless and unsettled as the rest of us.  She has written many times about a father who starts up a business in which he plans to sell fox fur and mink.

The business is always a bust, but moments of redemption always circulate around this speculative business.  In one story, for example, one of the workers may or may not be gay.  In any case, this man causes a “problem” and abruptly leaves.  What this problem is exactly--whether it has to do with his sexuality or something else--is the question that resonates with the young narrator. 

Munro has written that she sometimes begins with an actual event or character, but by the time her story is finished so much has been fictionalized that it is impossible to see the autobiographical origin.

However, in her latest work she has included four stories that are actually autobiographical.   Munro addresses the stories this way: “The final four works in this book are not quite stories.  They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.  I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.”

To me, it is interesting that the “closest thing she has to say about her own life” are the events that occurred when she was young—not when she was a new mother (which she has written about) or about leaving a husband (which she has also written about many, many times).

It seems significant (at least to me) that she chooses to go way back.  I remember hearing somewhere that “anyone who has gone through childhood can be an author,”

.  With Munro, you have to wonder if childhood holds the “deepest” part of us.  Munro suggests that events in childhood can be deconstructed and re-imagined indefinitely.  For example in Munro’s story “The Eye,” a heart-wrenching story about a young girl (presumably Munro) who has a crush on the family’s housekeeper, a jolly girl named Sadie.

The young narrator has to come to terms with Sadie’s awful, unexpected death.  When viewing her dead body, the narrator imagines that her eyelid moves.  For years she ponders this—was it possible?  She writes: “Yet for a long time when I did think of her, I never questioned what I believed had been shown to me.  Long, long afterwards, when I was not at all interested in any unnatural display, I still had in my mind that such a thing had happened…  Until one day, one day when I may even have been in my teens, I knew with a dim sort of hole in my insides that now I didn’t believe it anymore.”

This is not to say that the childhood stories are my favorites.  I love those, but I really love the stories where a character is blind-sided, taken by surprise by a turn of events that she doesn’t see coming. 

This usually involves a man luring a woman, then abandoning her.  Some might find this sub-set of Munro stories sensational or overly dramatic, but I find them thrilling. 

She has written this particular story many times and her latest collection, Dear Life, is no exception.

This trope gets explored in the story “Amundsen,” a story which originally appeared in the New Yorker (as do many of Munro’s stories).  In this story, a young woman takes a teaching job in a sanatorium where a vibrant, yet prickly doctor works.  He soon woos her and asks her to marry him. 

The young woman gives herself with abandon, yet realizes that she shouldn’t let him see the depths of her desire, for that would be threatening to the man.  Munro writes, “Right now I believe I could lie down for him in any bog or mucky hole, or feel my spine crushed against any roadside rock, should he require an upright encounter.  I know too that I must keep these feelings to myself.” 

This “bottling” of desire, this negotiating within oneself in order to get what one wants is a theme that plays again and again in Munro’s work. 

Munro seems to be saying that men want “desirable” women, but they don’t want the women to desire…  or at least in an unseemly way.  In this case, the doctor begs out of the wedding after letting the young woman feel that they are of similar minds and temperaments.  The abandonment is crushing, and one that the young woman never gets over.  Even in old age she writes after briefly seeing the doctor on a street in Vancouver, “Nothing changes really about love.”

Another favorite of mine in this collection is story called “Corrie.”  In this story, the reader has to pay attention (or go back and read it through again) because motives and expectations are not what they appear to be on the surface.  Blackmailing is involved, as well as a young heiress, and (again) a man that is seemingly good, but is he really?

Like “Corrie,” many of Munro’s stories are open to interpretation.  Perfect for book-club discussions        Many writers have given credit to Munro as shaping and inspiring them, including Jonathan Franzen and Cheryl Strayed.

Strayed describes writing to Munro as a young author and getting an encouraging letter back.   

How hard was it for Munro to become a writer?  Her daughter describes her mother as being in despair over her writing.  She describes coming home from school and seeing her mother sitting in a darkened house working on her stories.

I once came upon a bookstore when I was in Canada called “Munro’s.”  Naturally, I bought a book by Alice Munro when I was there and said to the pretty young clerk, “I love Alice Munro.” 

“So do I,”  the young woman answered, “she’s my mother.”

So, at least in real life this girl loved her mother.  In many stories that very fear is explored—that the mother will have to leave her children behind when she follows a lover, an anguished decision.  So, Munro asks us the question—what do we owe our children, our parents, our lovers.  But ultimately in the lonely, astonishing landscape Munro creates the question becomes:  What do we ultimately owe ourselves?

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