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Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro plus other observations on Munro's work

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

1971, McGraw-Hill Ryerson

I didn’t make notes or turn down any pages in this book. I just read on and on until it was, unfortunately, the end.

In spite of the boredom-threatening opening descriptions of silver fox farming and Canadian country towns, I saw the plot as no more than a background to explain what the characters were thinking or feeling and was therefore propelled onward by their thoughts and observations. I felt captivated in this simple world where not much, but then again, everything was happening.

If you don’t see plot that way you may react differently, perhaps like my good friend and fellow reader, who found it to be «one of those Canadian novels with sordid scenes» such as: the neighbor who beats her child, the adult friend of the family who masturbates while the adolescent main character observes with a certain detachment (the budding observer-writer?), and another scene where an abortion is treated with what seems like a lack of feeling.

Or, if like my friend, you're not a short story fan, be advised Munro writes in that genre, and even though Lives of Girls and Women is sometimes called a novel, it's really a collection of related short stories.

Whatever the form, Alice Munro’s language is masterful, poetic at times, succint, saying just exactly what she wants to say. While reading her collection Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage, I remember suddenly becoming aware of how the sentences were evenly weighted, sometimes having the same number of syllables. I don’t know if this is more noticeable in a short story, or maybe she sings the way I can hear. At any rate, mesmerized by the music, I didn’t mark any examples so you’re on your own to see if you hear it too.

Thinking back over the Munro I’ve read so far, certain bits stand out due to the vividness of the descriptions or the way they touched or surprised me:

The aforementioned masturbation scene is described rather scientifically, with no judgement of the man, just the facts, leaving it up to the reader to judge.

Lives of Girls and Women

An older married woman facing cancer kisses a young man, almost a boy, with her tongue.

« Floating Bridge »

Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage

A woman says she was not present when her mother died and didn’t go home for the funeral. I’m not sure if she regrets this but I did.

« Dear Life »

Dear Life

The town piano teacher holds a recital on a very hot day. Her house is stuffy and oppressive, and the preparations she has made for food somehow embarrassing. The parents are surprised and uncomfortable at the presence of handicapped students. The main character is embarrassed by her mother who insists on pronouncing words perfectly, making her a misfit in the simple town. This uneasy but fascinating awkwardness carries on until it is a handicapped student's turn to play the piano. Unexpectedly, the music is heavenly, it’s real and true, and the teacher is happy and proud, the townspeople a bit ashamed. I was lost in the sounds and feelings of the moment.

« Dance of the Happy Shades »

Dance of the Happy Shades

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