The People of Alice Munro

“Too Much Happiness” by Alice Munro

I want to discuss the people in Alice Munro’s stories. It would be facile and easy for me to say that Alice Munro celebrates the rich variety of people and their complex interactions in her stories. You may ask what rich variety? What complex interactions?

OK, let us start with a baby. A baby has two parents. Each parent is descended from at least ten thousand years of ancestors. Some of the same ancestors of these ten thousand years may be ancestors on both the mother and the father’s side, since after about five generations we consider even the descendents of brothers and sisters as not related anymore. When we think of our ancestors, we think of our grandparents, perhaps our great-grandparents, and in some cases our great-great grandparents, but in most cases not much beyond that.

So the baby is made up of the traits of all these people from these ten thousand years of ancestry on both the father’s and the mother’s sides. So given all these ancestral factors that go into each child, even a brother and sister or two brothers or two sisters can have completely different inherited traits. In fact two siblings can be totally different from each other. Or they can be very similar, or in the case of identical twins, almost identical.

The father and the mother of the baby may have met and mated in a great variety of different circumstances. The mother and father may have been destined for marriage to each other from almost birth, or, more likely, the two somehow met later on. In some cases, the father may have already left before the baby is born.

The birth of the baby itself is a significant, sometimes traumatic, event in the baby’s life, and can play a role in the identity of the person.

After the baby is born, it becomes part of a family. Each person in the family has a role. Of course, the child who most fulfills the parents’ expectations usually has most favored status in the family, even if the parents are careful not to show favoritism. In some cases, the first-born child so fulfills the parents’ expectations, that whatever the second child does is found lacking. In some circumstances one of the children may turn into the black sheep of the family even at a quite young age. There are cases where such a black sheep will have the persistence to succeed despite the family dynamic, but in other cases may be defeated in many different ways. One common example is the creative or artistic child born to very practical-minded parents. Or the very down-to-earth offspring of artistic parents. Also, the parents’ values may not be unified, where the mother and father have very different values. That may be the best circumstance in some cases. Also there are the interactions between the brothers and sisters themselves.

Then there are the significant life-changing events that occur in everyone’s life such as school, jobs, illnesses, significant deaths, friendships, romances, marriages, divorces, accidents, etc. Each person, given their individual makeup, attaches their own significance to each of these events.

Given all of the factors above, when two people meet, many different things can happen. In some cases one or both persons may have shut themselves off from meeting the other person in the first place. In many cases, when two people meet, they have enough empathy that they become friends. But in other cases, there is no empathy whatsoever between the two and the interaction most resembles a collision. In some cases, two people that are antithetical to each other must necessarily deal with each other on a daily basis.

Back to Alice Munro. Munro deals with these human complexities in her stories. In one story, a woman is going through a life-changing drama. She is so caught up in her own drama, she doesn’t realize that to another person who seems rather peripheral in her own story, she is the center of a completely different story. Alice Munro doesn’t constrict herself to narrow plot paths, so just about anything can happen in her stories, just like in life.

Munro doesn’t shy away from evil. If you are looking for pleasant stories only, stay away from Munro. If you are looking for a pleasant story, the first story in this book will probably cause you to have a heart attack. The first story makes the title of the collection seem ironic. There are also other stories in the book about evil. For Alice Munro, life isn’t about good persons and bad persons. It’s about the circumstances that cause people to do bad things. It’s complicated. It is part of the rich variety of human interaction.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. I am SO behind in my Munro reading. Nice post Tony….

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  2. Thanks, Whisperringgums, it is difficult to say anything new or different in an Alice Munro review, but I tried.

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  3. Posted by adevotedreader on December 28, 2009 at 1:06 AM

    I’ve just started Too much happiness (a much appreciated Xmas present) and have been quite winded by the first story. I do love Munro’s writing, although like yourself I find it hard to say anything new abut it.

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    • Hi ADevotedReader,
      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, when a writer has had so many books published as Alice Munro, it is difficult to find new things to say. The first story, Dimensions, is amazing as are several others.

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  4. Posted by Kelly S on December 28, 2009 at 5:15 AM

    I also received this new Alice Munro collection as an Xmas present, and am excited to read it! I love how Munro churns a thought-provoking, gripping story out of everyday situations (a train ride, a sick spouse, a visit with old friends) … Her stories make you realize that anybody can be far more complex than they seem on the surface.

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  5. Hi Kelly,
    I suppose “Too Much Happiness” was a very popular Christmas present this year. The complexity of Munro’s characters was one of the points I was striving for in my entry. Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. Great post, Tony. You always find something unique to say; I think I would describe your style as ‘understated enthusiasm.’ Anyway, Alice Munro is on my ‘sooner rather than later’ list. I hope I get to her soon.

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  7. Hi Sarah,
    “Understated Enthusiasm” – that’s a great term. I will read books that I’ve heard many good things about, and in most cases I’m going to like them. I’m still trying to deal with writing a book blog, but liking most everything I read. I suppose I’ll be more of an enthusiast than an objective book reviewer.
    I didn’t want to write the same thing everybody else does about Alice Munro, so tried something different.

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