Synopses & Reviews
is the first story in this stunning collection, sure to be a runaway success. All of the eight stories here are new, published in book form for the first time. Two of the eight have never appeared anywhere, so this will be a special feast for the millions of Munro fans around the world.
Miraculously, these stories seem to have been written by a young writer at the peak of her powers. Alice Munros central characters range from 14-year-old Lauren in “Trespass,” through the young couple in “Runaway,” whose helpful older neighbour intervenes to help the wife escape, all the way to a 70-year-old woman meeting a friend of her youth on a Vancouver street and sitting with him to recall their tangled lives fifty years earlier, through a web of cheerful lies.
Three of the stories, “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” are linked, showing us how the young teacher Juliet meets her fisherman lover on a train (and, by terrible chance, visits his B.C. home on the day after his wifes funeral); how, years later, she brings baby Penelope back east to show her parents and learns sad secrets about their marriage; and how, twenty years on, she visits the estranged Penelope in her cult-like B.C. community. The result is more powerful than most novels, a quality in Alice Munros stories that has been noted by many reviewers.
The final story, “Powers,” spans 50 years and runs from Goderich to Vancouver and involves a cast of four characters, each of whom steps forward to dominate the scene, not least Tessa, the plain girl whose psychic powers take her on the vaudeville circuit. But it is Alice Munros own powers that dominate this collection and that will amaze reviewers and readers. How can she keep getting better? How can any one person know so much about the heads and hearts of so many different people? And how can she weave them together in stories that delight academics and ordinary readers alike, making each new Alice Munro book a runaway bestseller?
"Nothing is new in Munro's latest collection, which is to say that the author continues to perfect her virtuosic formula in these eight short stories, several of which previously appeared in the New Yorker. While her style typifies the traditionally realistic, often domestic genre of that magazine, Munro's stories are also global, bighearted and warm. In the title story, a housekeeper tries to leave her emotionally abusive husband, entangling her employer in the process. Three interconnected stories 'Chance,' 'Soon' and 'Silence' follow a schoolteacher as she falls for an older man, returns as a young mother to visit her ailing parents on their farm and much later tries to 'rescue' her daughter from a religious cult. In 'Tricks,' a lonely nurse on a day trip encounters a man from Montenegro and vows to return to his clock shop one year later to resume their affair. In deliberate prose, Munro captures their fleeting moment of passion on a train platform: 'This talk felt more and more like an agreed-upon subterfuge, like a conventional screen for what was becoming more inevitable all the time, more necessary, between them.' Munro's characters are hopeful and proud as they face both the betrayals and gestures of kindness that animate their relationships. One never knows quite where a Munro story will end, only that it will leave an incandescent trail of psychological insight. Agent, William Morris. 100,000 first printing. (Nov. 14)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
About the Author
Alice Munros fame abroad is matched by the admiration she enjoys in Canada, where she has won the Governor Generals Award three times. Awards for her past collections include the W.H. Smith Prize in the U.K.; the National Book Circle Critics Award in the U.S.; the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction; the Rea Award for the Short Story; the Giller Prize, the Trillium Prize and the Libris Award. She lives in Ontario and British Columbia.
Reading Group Guide
Why is Sylvia so fond of Carla? Is Sylvia right, given the circumstances, to suggest that Carla leave her husband and give her the means to do so?
2. When Carla tells her parents she wants a “more authentic” life, what does she mean by this? How much does Carla know about authenticity or about life?
3. What is Clarks appeal for Carla? What darker suggestions does the story make about Clarks character? It seems that Clark has wanted to get rid of Carlas beloved pet goat: why? What resonance does Carlas vision of the goats bones lying in a nearby field have for the readers understanding of her future?
Why does Juliet decide to pursue Eric, a man she has met briefly only once? Is this a haphazard adventure, or does she go to Whale Bay with a determination about what she wants? She has told Eric about her studies in Greek and Latin, “I love all that stuff. I really do”. Later, she thinks of her love of the classical languages as her “treasure”. Why does she choose a man whose reading includes only National Geographic and Popular Mechanics?
5. Consider the end of the story: “She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her. She stands up, quite numb, and sees that he is older, heavier, more impetuous than she has remembered. He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay”. What does this passage express about Juliets situation and her feelings?
When Juliet finds the print of Chagalls I and the Village and buys it for her parents, she tells Christa, “It makes me think of their life. . . . I dont know why, but it does”. What is the significance of this painting as a gift and that Juliet later finds it hidden away in their attic? What does Juliet come to understand about her parents marriage?
7. Sara tells Juliet, “When it gets really bad for me–when it gets so bad I–you know what I think then? I think, all right, I think–Soon. Soon Ill see Juliet”. Why does Juliet refuse to acknowledge this statement from her dying mother? What makes the final paragraph of the story so effective in conveying the moments cold emotion?
Like Carla in “Runaway,” Juliet seems to take pride in her choice of an unconventional life. Does Penelope punish her mother for denying her the comfortable, conventional life she experiences with her friend Heathers family? Is Juliet right or wrong to share with Penelope, just after Erics death, tales of their arguments and his infidelity and to describe the burning of his body on the beach? Is it possible that Juliet says something during this time that is, for Penelope, unforgivable? To what extent does the story repeat the pattern of “Soon” and Juliets rejection of her own mother?
9. What does Juliet not see about herself that is clear to the reader? What aspects of her character are problematic? Is she admirable? Is she a narcissist? Is she “lacking in motherly inhibitions and propriety and self-control”? How does she handle the suffering inflicted upon her by Penelope and the diminishment of her life as she ages?
When Mrs. Travers is talking about Tolstoys Anna Karenina with Grace, she says her sympathies shifted from Kitty, to Anna, to Dolly, “I suppose thats just how your sympathies change as you get older. Passion gets pushed behind the washtubs”. Does passion have several meanings in this story? What does passion mean for each character?
11. “The ease with which [Grace] offered herself” to Maury is “a deliberate offering which he could not understand and which did not fit in at all with his notions of her”. Later, Grace realizes it would have been “a treachery to herself” to think of marrying Maury. What changes for Grace when she spends time with Neil? What causes this profound shift in perspective? What do she and Neil have in common?
12. The story opens with Graces return forty years later to find the Traverses house on the lake, which is the site of “old confusions or obligations”. Why does Munro choose not to tell us what Graces life is like now and how the choices she made that day have affected her?
Harry tells Lauren about Eileens first child and the circumstances of that childs death when she unknowingly picks up the box containing the first childs ashes. What do we learn about his character from the way he narrates the story and his attitude toward Lauren as he tells her? What does he imply about Eileen? How does Laurens response reflect her feelings toward her parents and to the life theyve chosen?
14. Lauren, as Delphine points out, is “a kid that is not short of information”. We dont learn until page 226, however, that Lauren is only ten. Why does Munro withhold this information until fairly late in the story?
15. Why do Harry and Eileen decide to make a ceremony of scattering the first childs ashes? What is the impact of Harrys words, “This is Lauren . . . and we say good-bye to her and commit her to the snow”? What is the effect of the storys final paragraph about Laurens reaction to the burrs clinging to her pajamas?
This story is based on the Shakespearean plots that involve twins, mistaken identities, and precise symmetry. Such tricks of plot, Robin thinks, are supposed to be a means to an end, “The pranks are forgiven, true love or something like it is rekindled, and those who were fooled have the good grace not to complain”. Why is the key to the mystery revealed to Robin so late in the game? Why did the lovers base their happiness on such a risky proposal? After finding out what had come between herself and Danilo, Robin reflects, “That was another world they had been in, surely”. What was this other world?
17. The title of this story might also be “Chance.” What does Munro suggest about the power of chance in shaping a life?
The story opens with Nancys diary and her first person voice. What do we learn about Nancys character in this intimate narrative form? According to Ollie, Nancy is “not outstanding in any way, except perhaps in being spoiled, saucy, and egotistical”; as a girl she was “truly, naturally reckless and full of some pure conviction that she led a charmed life”. Is this an accurate description of Nancy?
19. Like several other stories in this collection, “Powers” takes place in at least two time periods. It begins in 1927 and ends some time in the early seventies. What is the effect of this dual immersion in the early and late stages of the characters lives? How accurately does this story project the sense of reality in its main characters voice and her immersion in a particular time and place?
20. What does Nancy want or expect from marriage? Why does she marry Wilf? Does it seem that she would prefer to marry Ollie? Why or why not? Does Nancy warn Tessa against Ollie out of jealousy, or out of a realistic concern that he is not to be trusted?
21. Does the storys ending describe a dream? A vision? Why does it provide Nancy with a “sense of being reprieved”? What does it tell us about Nancys conscience and about her lifelong involvement with Tessa and Ollie?
22. For discussion of Runaway
Most of these stories involve young women who act upon a strong desire for sexual or romantic fulfillment or for escape from a stifling life. Is desire liberating or confining? Do these characters really know what they want or need? Does Munro suggest that desire is provisional and subject to change? Do the stories imply that life is inherently unstable and unknowable?
23. Writer Alan Hollinghurst has observed, “Munros stories have always felt exceptionally capacious; they have the scope of novels, though without any awkward sense of speeding up or boiling down. . . . Its almost impossible to describe their unforced exactness, their unrushed economy” [The Guardian, February 5, 2005]. Which techniques does Munro employ to accomplish this illusion of space and time in only forty or fifty pages?
24. In “Soon,” Juliet comes across a chatty letter she had written to Eric the summer she visited her parents. In it she finds “the preserved and disconcerting voice of some past fabricated self”. How does this idea of false self-representation work in various stories? Do characters tend to misrepresent themselves mainly in letters, or in person as well? Do they believe in these “fabricated selves” that they create for themselves and others?
25. Most of the stories in Runaway involve an older woman who is looking back at a determining moment in her youth. How do these characters view their younger selves? What are the qualities that accompany their reminiscences about the past–sentimentality, irony, bitterness, regret, a desire to change the story?