Often called one of North America’s finest writers, Alice Munro keeps producing consistently excellent stories. “Too Much Happiness,” her latest collection, is no exception.
Munro does not write novels, but her stories, which often span much of her characters’ lives, read like novels. After reading one of her stories you feel you don’t just know a moment from a character’s life, you know that character.
Though she is widely acclaimed in literary circles — she won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, along with many other awards — Munro’s writing is eminently accessible. She usually writes short, declarative sentences and clarifies for the reader just what and when something is happening. She makes brief transitions such as this: “This was in the summer, and that fall there was a dramatic fire in Toronto."
But she also writes concise descriptions that bring characters and settings to life: “Her large, kind, impersonal sobriety drained all assaulting cheerfulness, all insult, out of those clothes.”
Munro also throws in observations that serve as nuggets of wisdom. For example, in the story “Fiction,” Joyce thinks “there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness — however temporary, however flimsy — of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another.”
In the story “Wood,” Roy observes: “It is a mistake to think that people who have never managed to get hold of money aren’t busy thinking about it."
In most of Munro’s stories, the protagonists are women, often older. (“Face” and “Wood” are exceptions here.) Generally the stories are set in her native Canada. (The title story is the exception here.)
All 10 stories in this collection are good, but several stand out. In “Dimensions,” Doree falls into a relationship with an older man who becomes abusive, then commits a horrible act. Munro avoids cliche with her detailed language and having characters go against type in surprising ways. In the end, Doree finds a kind of healing in helping another person suffering trauma.
In “Deep-Holes” a mother visits her estranged son, who has gone off the grid and lives among poor and mentally ill people in Toronto, living off begging on the street. Munro deftly depicts each of them in their different ways searching for some meaning in their lives. In the end, the slimmest of connection between them offers some hope.
Several of the stories — “Fiction,” “Free Radicals,” “Child’s Play” and “Wood” — have clever twists that add to their charm (or horror) but do not resonate as deeply as others. “Face” and “Some Women” are primarily character studies, though they have their own plot twists as well.
The title story is longer, almost a novella. According to an author’s note at the end of the book, it is based on a real person, Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian woman in the 19th century who was a novelist and a renowned mathematician.
Munro gives us the sweep of her life, drawing out her difficulty in being taken seriously as a mathematician. Sophia lives in a time when “men whose brains were blowing old notions apart were still in thrall to women whose heads were full of nothing but the necessity of tight corsets, calling cards and conversations that filled your throat with a kind of perfumed fog.”
She dies young, in Sweden, on the verge of teaching at the university. Yet finds a kind of happiness. Such hints of happiness, often mere hints, mark this, another outstanding collection of stories from Alice Munro.