Synopses & Reviews
Ten superb new stories by one of our most beloved and admired writers — the winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize.
In the first story a young wife and mother receives release from the unbearable pain of losing her three children from a most surprising source. In another, a young woman, in the aftermath of an unusual and humiliating seduction, reacts in a clever if less-than-admirable fashion. Other stories uncover the deep holes in a marriage, the unsuspected cruelty of children, and how a boy's disfigured face provides both the good things in his life and the bad. And in the long title story, we accompany Sophia Kovalevsky — a late-nineteenth-century Russian emigre and mathematician — on a winter journey that takes her from the Riviera, where she visits her lover, to Paris, Germany, and, Denmark, where she has a fateful meeting with a local doctor, and finally to Sweden, where she teaches at the only university in Europe willing to employ a female mathematician.
With clarity and ease, Alice Munro once again renders complex, difficult events and emotions into stories that shed light on the unpredictable ways in which men and women accommodate and often transcend what happens in their lives.
Too Much Happiness is a compelling, provocative — even daring — collection.
"Munro's latest collection is satisfyingly true to form and demonstrates why she continues to garner laurels (such as this year's Man Booker International Prize). Through carefully crafted situations, Munro breathes arresting life into her characters, their relationships and their traumas. In 'Wenlock Edge,' a college student in London, Ontario, acquires a curious roommate in Nina, who tricks the narrator into a revealing dinner date with Nina's paramour, the significantly older Mr. Purvis. 'Child's Play,' a dark story about children's capacity for cruelty and the longevity of their secrets, introduces two summer camp friends, Marlene and Charlene, who form a pact against the slightly disturbing Verna, whose family used to share Marlene's duplex. The title, and final, story, the collection's longest and most ambitious, takes the reader to 19th-century Europe to meet Sophia Kovalevski, a talented mathematician and novelist who grapples with the politics of the age and the consequences of success. While this story lacks some of the effortlessness found in Munro's finest work, the collection delivers what she's renowned for: poignancy, flesh and blood characters and a style nothing short of elegant." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"10 masterly stories...A remarkable new book." Troy Jollimore, Los Angeles Times
"Filled with subtle and far-reaching thematic reverberations....[Munro has] an empathy so pitch-perfect....You [are] drawn deftly into another world." The New York Times Book Review
"Profound and beautiful." Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine
"Alice Munro has done it again....[She] keeps getting better....Her brush strokes are fine, her vision encompasses humanity from its most generous to its most corrupt, and the effect is nothing short of masterful." The San Francisco Chronicle
"Richly detailed and dense with psychological observation....Munro exhibit[s] a remarkable gift for transforming the seemingly artless into art....[She] concentrate[s] upon provincial, even backcountry lives, in tales of domestic tragicomedy that seem to open up, as if by magic, into wider, deeper, vaster dimensions." Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books
"A perfect 10....With this collection of surprising short stories, Munro once again displays the fertility of her imagination and her craftsmanship as a writer." USA Today
"Masterly....[A] remarkable new book." The Los Angeles Times
"Daring and unpredictable....Reading Munro is an intensely personal experience. Her focus is so clear and her style so precise....Each [story is] dramatically and subtly different." The Miami Herald
"A brand-new collection of short stories from Alice Munro — winner of a Man Booker Prize — is always cause for celebration, and Too Much Happiness doesn't disappoint. It dazzles. The 10 spare, lovely tales are...brimming with emotion and memorable characters....Munro's are stories that linger long after you turn the last page." Entertainment Weekly
"Finely, even ingeniously, crafted....Deliver[ed] with instinctive acuity." The Seattle Times
"Rich....Truthful, in the deepest sense of the word....Reading an Alice Munro short story is like sinking into a reverie. She expertly captures the shadings and byways of associative thought....[Munro] will surely be remembered as the writer who took the short story to the depth of what short fiction can plumb." The Kansas City Star
"Rich and satisfying....A commanding collection and one of her strongest....Short fiction of this caliber should be on everyone's reading list. Munro's stories are accessible; she simply writes about life....Honest, intuitive storytelling that gives the short story a good name." Chicago Sun-Times
"[Munro is] universally acknowledged as one of the greatest short-story writers of our time....[Her] work [is] at such a high level....These stories are extraordinary, ample with the shrewdness and empathy that we have come to take for granted in Munro....Her most distinguishing characteristic as a writer is...her extraordinary intimacy with her characters." The New Republic
"Coherent and compelling....Munro manages to turn the sentimental into the existential." The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Stunning....An unexpected gift....Here we have 10 perfectly honed pieces, each a study of the human psyche in hard-to-imagine circumstances that Munro presents, seemingly effortlessly, in an economy of words and sentences." The Buffalo News
"As always in her distinctive stories, Alice Murno's style is vivid, her attention tireless, her curiosity omnivorous, and her sentences drawn from the freshest of springs." The Washington Post
"Few writers can match the clarity and immediacy of Munro's descriptions whether she is portraying a subsiding marriage, a treacherous childhood, or the erotic and intellectual sojourn of a 19th century Russian mathematician." The Boston Globe
"I sit still for Alice Munro's expository passages every time. She lays down such seemingly ordinary but useful sentences, one after another after another....I stay to marvel....Is there anyone writing short fiction today in English who has more authority?" Alan Cheuse, NPR
About the Author
Now 78, Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published fourteen previous books — Dance of the Happy Shades
; Lives of Girls and Women
, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You
; Who Do You Think You Are?
; The Moons of Jupiter
; The Progress of Love
; Friend of My Youth
; Open Secrets
; Selected Stories
; The Love of a Good Woman
; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
; The View from Castle Rock
; and Alice Munro's Best
. During her distinguished career she has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the recent Man Booker International Prize given to her in Dublin for "a body of work that has contributed to an achievement in fiction on the world stage."
Here at home she has won too many awards to list, including three Governor General's Literary Awards, two Giller Prizes, several Trillium Prizes and a number of Libris Awards. Elsewhere she has won the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Lannan Literary Award, England's W. H. Smith Book Award, Italy's Pescara prize, the United States' National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Edward MacDowell Medal in literature. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Night, The Paris Review, and other publications, and her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.
Alice Munro divides her time between Clinton, Ontario, and Comox, British Columbia.
Reading Group Guide
As in her earlier story “Runaway,” Munro examines the effects of the psychological domination of one person by another. Why does Doree visit her husband in jail? Lloyd’s letters are a central part of the story: why does his notion that he has seen the children in another “dimension” (page 29) bring a kind of comfort to Doree? Does her thought that Lloyd, “of all people, might be the person she should be with now” (page 30) seem sensible, or dangerous? When she is on her way to the prison once again, Doree miraculously resuscitates a young man: how does this act connect to the title, and what does the final scene suggest about her future?
From whose point of view is this story told, and how does this shape our understanding of events? Edie has “a mind that plods inexorably from one cliché or foolishness to the next . . .” (pages 40–41). How might it be possible for Jon to prefer Edie to Joyce? In part two, how does Joyce feel when she reads about herself in Christie’s story? What is revealed by the child’s perspective? What does Joyce learn about herself that she hadn’t known, or had forgotten? Is it fitting that Christie doesn’t remember Joyce?
3. Wenlock Edge
Hearing Nina’s life story, the narrator says, “Her life made me feel like a simpleton” (page 72). Does this explain the narrator’s willingness to comply with Mr. Purvis’s requests? Why do you think Munro has chosen “On Wenlock Edge” (from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad) for the narrator to read to Mr. Purvis? How are the narrator’s feelings about literature, poetry, and the university library changed by her encounters with Nina and Mr. Purvis? Why does she send Ernie’s address to Mr. Purvis, and what does she gain by doing so? What details or events are most troubling in this story, and why?
As the family picnic begins, Sally finds herself in a dangerous place, “nearly crying with exhaustion and alarm and some familiar sort of seeping rage” (page 96). How would you describe Sally’s husband, and her marriage? Why does Kent leave home and refuse contact with his family? Why does he choose to live as he does (pages 109–17)? What effect does her meeting with Kent have upon Sally (pages 116–17)? What does the story’s title signify?
5. Free Radicals
Like “Dimensions,” this story presents an intimate view of someone who is capable of murdering his family. But it’s also a story about ordinary mortality: Nita’s husband has died of a heart attack, and she is suffering from liver cancer and may not have long to live. How does Nita cope with the idea of her own impending death? What story does the young man tell Nita when he shows her the photograph (pages 129–32), and what story does Nita tell him in return (pages 134–36)? What is the effect of this reciprocal response on Nita’s part? Compare this story’s ending with that of “Dimensions.”
What is the web of familial and extrafamilial relations that determines the plot of this story? Discuss how the narrator and his friend Nancy create their own freedom and happiness within close range of a deeply unhappy ménage à trois. Who is the cause of the rupture that occurs on pages 155–57? Are Nancy’s attempts to mirror the flawed face of the narrator—first by painting, later by cutting—the clearest expressions of love he experiences in his lifetime? The narrator decides to settle in his childhood home because “in your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places” (page 164). Why is this insight so profound? He goes on to suggest that the past is irreversible; do you agree or disagree?
7. Some Women
Who are the women referred to in the title? The story is narrated from a young girl’s
point of view. What does she understand—--and what does she not understand—--about what is going on in Mrs. Crozier’s house (page 188)? Who is the main actor in the story, the one who is trying hardest to manipulate others? What is the motive for this manipulation?
8. Child’s Play
The story opens with references to an event that is not yet explained. Why does Munro frame the story in this way? Explaining why she feels “persecuted” by Verna, Marlene says, “Only adults would be so stupid as to believe she had no power. A power, moreover, that was specifically directed at me” (page 204, 201). How does this idea of power ricochet through the story? Why does Marlene become an anthropologist, and why does she shun intimacy (pages 211, 2–12)? What does Charlene do to Marlene in asking her to go in search of Father Hofstrader? Compare this story with “Face,” with which it shares the idea that the action of a moment can be the determining event in a person’s life.
Why is Roy obsessed with cutting wood, an interest which is “private but not secret” (page 226)? How has Lea’s illness affected their marriage? What is being repressed or unexpressed by Roy in this story? What is the transformation that takes place in Lea? What is the loss referred to at the bottom of page 245, and what does Roy mean when he retrieves from his mind the phrase, “the Deserted Forest” (page 246)?
10. Too Much Happiness
Outwardly this story diverges from the rest, but what concerns or questions connect it with others? What is the relationship between Sophia’s love for Maksim, her ideas about womanhood, and her joy in mathematical thought? Are they in conflict? How does Munro present female intellectual ambition and its frustrations, even its tragedy? What do you think is meant by Sophia’s last words, “too much happiness” (page 302)?
11. General questions
- In several of these stories, Munro sets out the dynamics of love and hate, desire and frustration in marriages, but does not interpret for the reader the actions that result. There is no facile sign-posting of causes and effects. In what stories do you find Munro’s presentation of the unstated mood or tensions of a marriage most effective?
- Discuss the following observation on Too Much Happiness by Leah Hager Cohen: “The collection’s ten stories take on some sensational subjects. In fact, a quick tally yields all the elements of pulp fiction: violence, adultery, extreme cruelty, duplicity, theft, suicide, murder. But while in pulp fiction the emotional climax coincides with the height of external drama, a Munro story works according to a different scheme. Here the nominally momentous event is little more than an anteroom to an echo chamber filled with subtle and far-reaching thematic reverberations” (The New York Times Book Review, 27 November 27, 2009).
- In “Fiction,” Joyce hasn’t yet read Christie’s book, but thinks: “How Aare wWe to lLive is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside” (page 52). Is this an ironic comment on Munro’s own work, reflecting the general opinion of short stories as opposed to the novel? How do these stories prove that opinion misguided?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)
Review A Day
"Munro has spent 41 years escorting us through her rooms, through the fertile house of her imagination — 'Your body ages,' she said in an interview with The (London) Observer
, 'but your mind is the same' — directing us to her windows, pointing out the world view beyond." Ellen Urbani, The Oregonian
(read the entire Oregonian review
"As always, Munro demonstrates an extraordinary ability to inhabit the minds of characters who bear little surface resemblance to her, and she is also far more at ease than most contemporary writers with a wide range of social classes." Brooke Allen, The Barnes and Noble Review (read the entire Barnes and Noble review)