In the world of Alice Munro, the best route is not necessarily the shortest distance between two points. In her ninth superlative collection of short fiction, The Love of a Good Woman
, the setting is once again western Canada, and the subject matter is classic Munro: secrets, love, betrayal, and the stuff of ordinary lives. But as is usual for this master of the short form, the path she takes is anything but ordinary. The stunning title story is a case in point. A narrative in four parts, it begins with the drowning of a small-town optometrist and ripples outward, touching first the boys who find the body, then a spiteful dying woman and her young practical nurse. Whose tale is
this, anyway? Not the optometrist's, surely, though his death holds it together. The effect is not exactly Rashomon
-like either, though each of the sections views him through a different eye. Instead, "The Love of a Good Woman" is as thorough and inclusive a portrait of small-town life as can be imagined--its tensions and its deceit, its involuntary bonds. Within its 75 pages it encompasses a world more capacious than that of most novels.
As always, Munro's prose is both simple and moving, as when the letter-writing protagonist of "Before the Change" sends her love to an ex-fiancé:
What if people really did that--sent their love through the mail to get rid of it? What would it be that they sent? A box of chocolates with centers like the yolks of turkey's eggs. A mud doll with hollow eye sockets. A heap of roses slightly more fragrant than rotten. A package wrapped in bloody newspaper that nobody would want to open.
The fictions in this volume burn with a kind of dry-eyed anti-romanticism--even the ones whose plots verge on domestic melodrama (a baby's near-death in "My Mother's Dream"; an adulterous wife in "The Children Stay"). Densely populated, elliptical in construction, each story circles around its principal events and relationships like planets around a sun. The result is layered and complex, its patterns not always apparent on first reading: in other words, something like life. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
Again mining the silences and dark discretions of provincial Canadian life, Munro shines in her ninth collection, peopled with characters whose sin is the original one: to have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The good woman of the title story?a practical nurse who has already sacrificed her happiness to keep a deathbed promise?must choose whether to believe another moribund patient's confession or to ignore it and seize a second chance at the life she has missed. The drama of deathbed revelation is acted out, again, between a dying man and the woman at his bedside in "Cortes Island," when a stroke victim exposes his deepest secret to his part-time caretaker, in what may be the last act of intimacy left to him, and in the process puts his finger on the fault lines in her marriage. In the extraordinary "Before the Change," a young woman confronts her father with the open secret of his life and reveals the hidden facts of hers; she is unprepared, however, for the final irony of his legacy. The powerful closing story, "My Mother's Dream," is about a secret in the making, showing how a young mother almost kills her baby and how that near fatality, revealed at last to the daughter when she is 50, binds mother and daughter. Compressing the arc of a novella, Munro's long, spare stories?there are eight here? span decades and lay bare not only the strata of the solitary life but also the seamless connections and shared guilt that bind together even the loneliest of individuals. First serial to the New Yorker. (Nov.) FYI: Four of Munro's previous collections are available in Vintage paperback.
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