This is my review of Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro.
I have heard Alice Munro described so often as one of the greatest contemporary short story writers that I had high expectations for this book. The length of the stories surprised me, together with her frequent tendency to ramble from what seems to be the main thread of each tale. Then there is the tendency to skim in a few pages through decades of a character's life, often telling us what to make of people and situations, rather than implying or revealing these aspects. Yet from the outset I thought I could see the reasons for Munro's fame in her easy, confident and very readable style, the rapid building up of situations and characters, the occasional very insightful comments which chime with one's own experience of life, clarifying some point which has lain dormant in one's own mind, and one suddenly recognises to be true.
I was held by the continuous sense that a story is heading somewhere meaningful and thought provoking, and by the knowledge that, at any point, she may insert some dark and shocking event: a man murders his children in a jealous rage, a widow realises that the gas man she has admitted to her house is in fact a crazed killer. I suspect that most people will find that some stories leave them cold, but they are moved by a few to which they can particularly relate, such as a mother's sense of loss before steeling herself to accept that her son has "dropped out" to become an anarchist.
I agree with the reviewer who found the title story "Too Much Happiness" hard to engage with – it reads like a draft of a story, based on research notes – but I do not mind that it is "out of character" with the rest in being the tale of a female Russian mathematician in the late nineteenth century, rather than a series of tales of small town Canadian life – a kind of Lake Woebegone with a sting in the tale. Also, the title seems inappropriate for the collection as a whole, since most of the themes are somewhat bleak.
Although these stories are admirable and original, characters appear implausible at times and plots often seem very slight with underwhelming downbeat endings(as in Wenlock Edge) and left me ambivalent – not sure what to make of some stories and wondering whether I had missed something! I suppose that the scope for debating what each one means adds interest – good for reading groups and so on! I was made very aware of Monro's age with many of these stories harking back to a distant youth, and reflecting on a whole lifetime (as in Face). I plan to read some of her earlier work to see if the stories have a tighter structure and make more of an impact.