I always feel like I’ve failed when I don’t like a book that is critically acclaimed as much as this one is. Did everyone else catch something I missed? Do I need to read it again? Maybe with a novel but I’ve been reading this collection of short stories for two months and didn’t love any of them. That isn’t to say I vehemently disliked them. I was just apathetic which might even be worse.
Alice Munro is one of the most famous short story writers around now. Before I had picked up Dear Life I had heard raving reviews about how her short stories were more layered and complex than most novels or how she wrote about the commonplace and “ordinary” people with empathy and mastery and even how she was one of the greatest short story writers of all time.
The first, and major, problem with this is that I didn’t find Munro’s characters commonplace and ordinary. Unless you define ordinary as middle class, white, straight and suburban (I don’t). All the stories were based around characters from this same background. I don’t find it hard to empathise with characters from a different background to me (most books I read aren’t centred around British Pakistani women) and in fact I love reading about characters who are wildly different from me. The problem was that I got the feeling that Munro believed herself that this was “ordinary” not just to her but universally which is why I couldn’t connect to her writing.
Repression, sex and longing are major themes in this collection of stories. Munro’s unsentimental language illustrates how they burn or curdle under a seemingly mundane setting. The relationships vary from the taboo to the routine or sometimes the merely unwise. Munro illustrates how an insignificant event can change someone’s life, how one person can devastate another and the tragedies and foolishness of life all while maintaining the same clear and effortlessly lovely voice.
“The dream was in fact a lot like the Vancouver weather—a dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness, a weight that shifted round the heart.”
Stories I mildly enjoyed were Dolly a story of a couple reaching old age being surprised out of their complacency by an unexpected visitor and Gravel, a portrayal of parental negligence leading to tragedy. I also appreciated the understated devastation of Corrie.
I would be more forgiving of the build up around Dear Life if I enjoyed the stories more but unfortunately it wasn’t my cup of tea.