The Short Version: The now-Nobel lauded author’s final collection of short stories, full of life in all its majesty and quiet import. The split second decision to jump off a train and walk back instead of going forward sends reverberations down a man’s life. A chance encounter with a saleswoman reconnects two old flames. And a suite of Munro’s first-ever autobiographical stories reveals some of her dear life to close out the collection.
The Review: It’s a simple enough statement to make: I’ve never previously read any Alice Munro. When this collection, reportedly (by her own account) her last, made it into the ToB last year, it was the only book from the bracket of 16 that I didn’t pick up nearly right away. I just… didn’t have the urge. I heard the marvelous things about her writing and skimmed a few excerpts but nothing really said to me “No, you MUST read this!” and so it wasn’t until after the Nobel announcement, when my BookClub nearly unanimously elected it as our next choice, that I found myself faced with my first-ever ToB completion… and, oh yes, a marvelous storyteller.
I wasn’t terribly won over at the start. While Munro’s writing is quite clear and lovely, I found the “quiet desperation,” the Stoner-esque quiet moments, to be a little too much. A mood thing, I don’t entirely doubt – but then a strange thing happened. I felt as though I’d missed something, as though the record had just skipped. And suddenly I realized just why Munro has so quietly (and not-so-quietly) become an absolute master of a delicate form. The shock that comes from the sudden realization of an off-stage moment does not fade, throughout any of these stories. Those little pieces of neglected information force the reader to panic, briefly, and to do a sort of catching-up – much as we do in life when suddenly we realize we missed something, forgot something. The name of this collection is Dear Life and I took that to be something like the salutation in a letter – a sort of wistful wave goodbye – but I realize now, having finished the last story, that it’s instead a reflection of that phrase we use to denote a moment of panic, that we were “holding on for dear life.” And nearly all of these stories reflect those moments of reaching out for dear life. Of needing to change, of being changed, of neglecting to change – those moments that zip by and suddenly we are untethered from what we knew. Not in a necessarily catastrophic way – not even in necessarily a bad way. But we cling to how things were because that’s what we knew and whatever’s coming next is new, we don’t know it as we knew what came before.
John Warner, in the commentary for the ToB last year, mentioned that he doled these stories out – read the collection over a long period of time to savor each story. I see (as I’ve come to understand with many collections) why that’s a smart way to approach this book. You can really only take one or two or maybe a small handful of these moments at a time – because they are, when taken together as a lump, sometimes dull. Not in the boring sense but in the sense that these are not extraordinary lives. Munro makes a comment in one of the last stories, part of this autobiographical suite (and, for my money, the best part of the collection), that were she writing fiction, she wouldn’t’ve made up this particular detail because it would be ‘too much’ – but there it was, in real life, and so it is reported. Truth is stranger than fiction, is it not? We see that all the time. Only here, Munro makes every single story feel real. There’s some invention here and there – but you realize that even the extraordinary things that occur (chance meetings, sudden impulses) are really very ordinary in that they do happen to us all the time. We just don’t believe (or, well, many don’t believe) that our stories are worth telling and so we say “oh, my, it’s like something out of a novel” when we’d never actually believe it if we read it in said novel. So the magic of Munro, then, is that she does the near-impossible of making ordinary life, with all its extraordinary moments, still seem ordinary on the page.
This, I should note, is a compliment – for what task could be more difficult?
Rating: 4 out of 5. Wondrous as Munro’s writing is and as delightfully tricky as her ability to leave out something and then catch you up within the story can be… She is, I feel, perhaps not quite for me. The beauty of the ordinary moment is, indeed, beautiful – but that magic I mentioned can get tiresome, for me. “Ordinary” life, which we know is anything but, seeming ordinary on the page is a masterful stroke of talent – but I read for the disparity between my ordinary life and the extraordinary lives of those on the page. I can see myself growing into an enjoyment of Munro as I might a particular chair, a particular room, a particular woman, any particular thing that I spend 50 years with. I think the ability to reflect on life is crucial for these stories – and this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy them or that I do not reflect on my life but rather that a 25 year old maybe can’t quite grasp what it means to suddenly realize how one moment shifted the course of your life. How twice as many years spent on this planet might suddenly change your perspective. Perhaps I will love Munro’s work when I am her age – but for now, I simply appreciate it.