Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

Alice Munro has been much in the news lately. David recently wrote about her very generously withdrawing from this year's Giller Prize competition. This year she also won the Man Booker International Prize awarded every two years for her entire body of work. A suitable honour for the writer who has been referred to as "our Chekhov".

Munro's stories tend to be reflections on everyday life. Rural Ontario and British Columbia are her typical settings. Her characters, for the most part are women. Her stories are coming of age stories often with a young girl moving from the country to the city. We read about everyday life, marriage, children, aging and death. Munro explores human relationships through ordinary everyday events. For us, the readers, the events are real and profound. Munro writes with grace and insight, capturing commonplace experiences making them significant.

Critics, writing about Alice Munro, tend towards the poetic. This article from the Toronto Star is a good example. Really, Munro's stories are just terrific reads.

Her latest, Too Much Happiness, is a little darker than usual. The ten stories deal with infanticide, forgiveness, adultery, a home invasion, murder, secrets and jealousy. The final story "Too Much Happiness" takes us out of Canada to Russia and Sweden. She tells the story of real-life mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky, whose ironic final words give the story and the book its title.

Of course, there is only one Alice Munro. I won't use the word readalike, but a couple of authors do come to mind when I think about some of Munro's more typical themes. Anne Tyler and Carol Shields often (though not exclusively, of course) write about women and their relationships with spouses, children, friends and work. Unless by Carol Shields is about a woman who normally considers herself to be happy and successful. She is distressed to find her eldest daughter homeless on the streets of Toronto.

Alice Munro is sometimes compared to Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor would have been about ten years older than Munro and died quite young. She grew up in Georgia and her writing style has been called Southern Gothic with strong regional settings. Her characters, like Munro's, find themselves challenging deeply held community beliefs.

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