All of these eight wonderful stories are about what people will do for love, and the unexpected routes their passion will force them to take.
An old landlady in Vancouver who alarms the just-married narrator with her prim advice about married life – and “the peculiar threat” of a china cabinet that must be washed once a month – is shown to have conspired when young in a crime of passion. A young mother, at the mercy of the “radiant explosion” that comes when she thinks of her secret life, abandons her baby and four-year old to be with her lover in the story “The Children Stay.” A gruff old country doctor in the 1960s is discovered by his daughter to be helping desperate women, his “special patients.” An impetuous young woman meets a visiting Indian student and conceives on a train from Vancouver to Toronto because of “the fact that you couldn’t get condoms around the Calgary station, not for love or money.” An Ontario farm wife’s affair drives her husband to commit a murder; its discovery, years later, will act as a negotiating point for a new, presumably satisfactory, marriage.
The book is clear-eyed about the imperfections of marriage, the clutter of our emotional lives, and the impermanence of love: “Not that that was the end. For we did make up. But we didn’t forgive each other.” Even the shared memories of earlier times prove to be a minefield, and many of the stories track the changes that time brings over generations to families, lovers, and even to friends who share old, intimate secrets about “the prostration of love.”
As always these stories by Alice Munro are shot through with humour, and are as rich as novels. As always the characters in the stories are easily, sometimes uncomfortably, recognizable as people like us. One quote summarizes the delightful surprises that await the reader: “Did you ever think that people’s lives could be like that and end up like this? Well, they can.”
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. FYI: Four of Munro's previous collections are available in Vintage paperback.