I’ve had Alice Munro’s last book, Too Much Happiness (Vintage, $15), on my to-read list for so long, it’s out in paperback. I think she is our finest living short-story writer.
No one else can tell a story the way she can. The opening lines almost always take you on a journey, or promise a cautionary tale, or refer to another time; it’s like descending into one of those beautiful old shadow boxes trimmed in gilt, with vintage figures of men and women pasted into it that come alive.
“I am speaking of the way things were just before the Second World War…” they begin, or, “In those days they didn’t let fathers into the glare of the theater where babies were born…” or the story takes place back when “there was a fashion for naming twins in rhyme.” We know we are in some hazy, pre-PC, sepia-toned atmosphere, like the corner of the attic where the old steamer trunk sits in the shadows, full of old photo albums—and at least one family skeleton.
Everything has already happened, as she lays the scene, quietly, and after a few pages, calmly introduces a seemingly tangential character: The doorbell rang, says the narrator, and there was a person “whom I had not been told about.” Now it will get good, we know. This may as well be the alluring little cottage in the wood, and we the doe-eyed Hansel or Gretel.
Jon and Joyce live in a pleasant, welcoming farmhouse they’re renovating as the story, “Fiction,” opens. Joyce tells us how pleasing it is to come home from work and see the new, fashionable patio doors Jon has installed. A furniture restorer, Jon works days in his shed; Joyce says the two of them sometimes talk at night about something his apprentice, Edie, has said. Edie’s a little strange, but Jon gets paid for teaching her, so he tolerates her. Joyce, an elegant, pretty music teachers, sees her as nonthreatening: With “broad shoulders, thick bangs, tight ponytail, [and] no possibility of a smile,” Edie is covered in tattoos and has a daughter of her own. We are just as surprised as Joyce is when Jon falls for Edie, and even more, when Joyce agrees to move out of her lovely home and give it over to them—hoping that Jon will come to his senses. She’s sure he loves her still.
He doesn’t. Years pass, and we meet Joyce again; remarried, at a party for her third husband, she finds among her guests a sullen young woman “wearing a short frilly black dress that makes you think of a piece of lingerie,” to whom she takes an instant dislike. Who is this disturbing new face?
In a deceptively ordinary, oh-by-the-way voice, Munro fits these whole lives into the story, not just one, but several, like Russian dolls. She is like the wolf dressed as grandmother, her frilly cap and homey nightgown concealing a shrewd, sharp interest in something altogether different than what we first see.
Take the narrator in “Wenlock Edge”: a college student, she begins her story talking about a bachelor cousin who, when she moves to London, Ontario, to go to school, takes her out for meals. And on she grumbles, talking about the other girls in the rooming house, the landlady, her job in the school cafeteria—when, without warning, “there was another girl moving in” to her room. Nina, who turns the world upside down and sideways and subjects the narrator to one of the most humiliating and unforgettable incidents she’ll ever know.