As always, Alice Munro surprises us. While the nine stories in this new collection could not be written by anyone else, they are subtly different. The title story, for example, ranges from small-town Ontario just after the war to a near-deserted hotel on the bald Saskatchewan prairie. The setting may be strange, uncharted Munro territory, but the plot is familiar, with two lives changed forever by a random act of mischief that can never be revealed.
“Floating Bridge” is also a typical Alice Munro story, but different. Forty-two-year-old Jinny is fighting cancer, and the front room in their middle-class home is turned into a sickroom. Her husband hires a girl to look after her, and they visit the girl’s trailer park relatives. Class tensions are exposed (“You know you’ll hurt their feelings,” he whispered. “They’re trying to be nice to you.”), and then something both unbelievable and totally believable happens to conclude the story in a way the reader will never forget.
Other stories contain lines that change the world. A promisingly flirtatious reunion with a teenage sweetheart, now married, takes an unexpected turn. (“About our youngest boy,” he said. “Our youngest boy was killed last summer.” Oh. “He was run over,” he said. “I was the one who ran over him. Backing out of our driveway.” I stopped again. He stopped with me. Both of us stared ahead. “His name was Brian. He was three.”)
In this great book by one of the world’s great writers, the settings may be Vancouver Island, small-town Ontario, Toronto, or Vancouver, but the stories are universal, and the characters – no, the people in the stories – are unforgettable.
A writer of Munro's ilk hardly needs a hook like the intriguing title of her 10th collection to pull readers into her orbit. Serving as a teasing introduction to these nine brilliantly executed tales, the range of mentioned relationships merely suggests a few of the nuances of human behavior that Munro evokes with the skill of a psychological magician. Johanna Parry, the protagonist of the title story, stands alone among her fictional sisters in achieving her goal by force of will. A rough, uneducated country girl, blatantly plain ("her teeth were crowded into the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument"), she seems doomed to heartbreak because of a teenager's trick, but the bracingly ironic denouement turns the reader's dire expectations into glee. The women in the other stories generally cannot control their fate. Having finally been reunited with the soul mate of her youth, the narrator of "Nettles" discovers that apparently benevolent fate can be cruel. In a similar moment of perception that signals the end of hope, Lorna in "Post and Beam" realizes that she is condemned to a life of submission to her overbearing, supercilious husband; ironically, her frowsy country cousin envies Lorna's luck in escaping their common origin. In nearly every story, there's a contrast between the behavior and expectations of country people and those who have made it to Toronto or Vancouver. Regardless of situation, however, the basics of survival are endured in stoic sorrow. Only the institutionalized wife of a philanderer in "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" manages to outwit her husband, and she has to lose her sanity to do it. All of the stories share Munro's characteristic style, looping gracefully from the present to the past, interpolating vignettes that seem extraneous and bringing the strands together in a deceptively gentle windup whose impact takes the breath away. Munro has few peers in her understanding of the bargains women make with life and the measureless price they pay.