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Middle-aged women are supposed to love Alice Munro almost as much as they love yogurt. A serene, poised, white-haired presence on the book jacket, Munro rules over her own world of strong, quiet, older women. She never raises her voice and provides neat little bites of stories that are flavorful without too many calories.
Munro’s stories may be the yogurt of the literary world, but there is a reason yogurt is so popular—it is impossible to truly dislike. At their best, her stories in “Too Much Happiness” are proof that the best writing need not reach for grandeur. However, Munro runs into the inevitable danger of writing within a narrow world, and her stories begin to seem undistinguishable from one another. Instead of presenting readers with a slice of Munro’s world, it starts to feel as if she were reaching out to her target audience and telling them: Here, like this book.
Despite Munro’s clear attempts to move outside her comfort zone—even making one story’s narrator a man—the stories of “Too Much Happiness” still firmly belong in Munro Land. And despite subject matter that includes a fair amount of sex, drugs, and violence, her stories still read with the same quiet calm, so much so that it often takes a couple minutes for the full weight of the subject matter to sink in.
Munro Land is a world of characters that are entirely respectable, but live just out of view of the people we may read about in the newspapers. They aren’t people who are going anywhere in particular. They have picked ordinary professions—woodworking is popular, featured in three of her stories—and retired to small towns in Canada. There, they grapple with the same issues that much more angst-ridden writers labor over—only with less fanfare.
This is an admirable and refreshing way to look at life’s dramas. “Dimensions,” the first story in “Too Much Happiness,” could easily be ripped from the headlines of a tabloid. Nevertheless, Munro manages to tell the story of a woman whose husband has murdered her children as if it were an unexceptional event. Munro includes chilling, yet matter of fact details of the woman’s relationship with her husband such as, “she was even allowed to laugh with him, as long as she wasn’t the one who started the laughing.” There is no place here for tears or court-ordered shrinks. Rather, Munro places much more stock by what the ordinary woman feels.
Munro emphasizes the ordinary to such a degree that the fact that her stories portray the extraordinary almost slips by unnoticed. Though on the surface her women seem to lead predictable lives, the situations they face have a subtle element of the supernatural that is much scarier as a result of how detached her tone remains throughout.
In one scene, a shy college girl goes for dinner at the house of her roommate’s strange benefactor. Upon entering, she is told, “Here is where you leave your clothes.” Without missing a beat Munro writes, “Don’t worry, you won’t be cold. The house is well heated throughout.” Because both lines are uttered in the same casual manner, the expectation for her to strip seems almost as natural as the assumption that she would take off her coat. In moments like this, Munro avoids the clichés of gothic literature by emphasizing that the ordinary is the worst part of the extraordinary.
The first stories in “Too Much Happiness” exhibit Munro’s power at its best. Possibly due to the repetitive nature of her subject matter, her later stories become less and less fresh and she resorts more and more to the formula that she knows cannot fail. She becomes overly romantic about the characters she is describing and can’t help but hide her enthusiasm. Describing the third craftsman we encounter, she says, “He can lie awake nights thinking of a splendid beech he wants to get at, wondering if it will prove as satisfactory as it looks or has some tricks up its sleeve.” Munro is so enthralled with the idea of someone who works with their hands that these characters fail to represent anything more than their profession.
The final and titular story of the book exemplifies this tendency. It is Munro’s imagining of a short period in the life of an exceptional woman from history: Sophia Kovalevsky, a mathematician and novelist who lived in the late 19th century. Munro writes that she encountered Sophia’s story in an encyclopedia, and the story begins to read more like a factual entry than anything else. Sophia is a fascinating character and a perfect example of a powerful woman, but by portraying her as a saint, Munro makes this woman less accessible to her readers.
By Munro’s final story, the particular world she is writing about begins to feel real. This can be a comforting thought—who doesn’t want to believe that in every ordinary person is a kernel of resilience and power? It is certainly impressive that she manages to create a portrait in miniature of the world that feels so authentic. But just like yogurt, while one or two can be refreshing, after a whole book of stories, it might be time to get something a little more sustaining.
—Staff writer Rebecca J. Levitan can be reached at email@example.com.
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