Sadly, some books are not that memorable but I often find that the atmosphere of a book stays with me, rather than the detail. Not a good thing, particularly since it is often in the detail, the particularity, that a book has captured me, rather than in the general gist. Nevertheless, I must say that I enjoyed Alice Munro's collection - she is a satisfying sort of writer, rather like a good meal, there has been variety, nourishment, enjoyablity. Surprise, of a good kind, even when the situation of the story has jumped up and bit me. Wenlock Edge, is such a story, taking in situations that might threaten and alarm. Never mind, she is in control. Never telling us what to think, only holding out the extraordinary as a kind of bonus.
Face is a story about a child with an unignorable birthmark of which the father says, "You don't need to think you're going to bring that into the house." This reaction sets the scene: one side of the boy's face is normal, the other "...looks as if someone has dumped grape juice or paint on me, a big serious splash that does not turn to driblets till it reaches my neck." He makes a living on radio as an announcer. But the main point of the story concerns a neighbour's daughter who becomes obsessed by the naevus to the point that she wants one too.
The title story Too Much Happiness is almost a novella and gives Munro space to develop a theme based on the adventure of mathematics, about which she says: "Many persons who have not studied mathematics confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science. Actually, however, this science requires great fantasy." Here I have to confess my incomprehension. Maths is a mystery to me. But what I took from this story was a beautiful sense of the Russian character which had me thinking that maybe I should read Tolstoy, who I have so far evaded. No, not even Anna Karenina. She spread before me a sense of the fatalism and inherent revolutionary nature of Russia, and this was, for me, inspiring in itself. I've read Crime and Punishment, of course, which I loved, but now I might venture further.
Too Much Happiness is a collection of short stories, which I know aren't everyone's cup of tea but I really enjoy them – when they are done well, and these were.
Alice Munro has a way of drawing me in from pretty much the first sentence and painting pictures of people and places that feel very real to me. I was amazed throughout this book just how quickly I became involved in the stories and attached to the characters.
There are 10 stories in this collection and all but one, Too Much Happiness, are set in Canada sometime in the past (between the late 40s and 70s I think). And all, bar one, are pure fiction as far as I can tell. Too Much Happiness is the one that isn’t. Instead, it is based on the last days of Russian mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky.
This is the longest of the stories too. When I started it, I wasn’t sure if I was enjoying it and it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of what I’d been reading. In retrospect, though, it is one of the ones that has stayed with me most and it does follow the same themes of women trying to make their way in a world they seem slightly out of sync with. They are looking for their place in it, often after an important life event, and their expectations of themselves and others seem to change as they get older.
The other story I couldn’t let go of was Child’s Play, a tale of childhood cruelty and how this can be hard to let go of. There is a twist in the tail of this one that made me stop for more than a second. This story is about 30 pages, as are the rest, making them easy to fit in and read in bursts. As well as childhood, the stories deal with domestic abuse, infidelity, ruined friendships, mothers and sons, bereavement, and love. None are easy subjects and some are pretty uncomfortable reading. All are handled well, even the most disturbing, though – making me think back through my own life and ask questions of the world around me. They are all well worth a read. Highly recommended!
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.
I've read Alice Munro's short stories before and enjoyed them but these are in a different class. She is a wonderful writer with a clear,elegant style and extraordinary psychological understanding. They're absorbing to read and stay in your mind long after you've finished. The stories are quite long - novellas rather than short stories - and I can't imagine anyone not enjoying them. Even people who normally don't like short stories may find they have to change their opinions after reading Too Much Hapiness.
All characters seem unreal and all relations negative, but the language is good and the stories well told. Alice Munro is well-known for her short stories, but she is always fairly neutral to her characters and the setting is very impersonal - to me this author is a bit overrated.
When I picked up this collection of ten short stories by Alice Munro, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. This, courtesy of a reading group, was my first encounter with Ms Munro's fiction.
After I read the first story, `Dimensions', I put the book down for almost a week. I was not sufficiently optimistic about Doree's future to be comfortable with the possibility of a new beginning. The ending to Doree's story took me by surprise, and I wanted more before moving on. At the rate of one story a day, I finished the book. Each of these stories made an impact and, a number of them made me uncomfortable - especially the relationships in `Wenlock Edge' and the cruelty of children in `Child's Play'. I found `Too Much Happiness' quite different from the other stories, and it didn't work as well for me. While I'm interested in learning more about Sophia Kovalevsky, a 19th century Russian mathematician, as a consequence - I couldn't be sure where fact ended and fiction began. For some reason I found this distracting.
The two stories I liked best were `Face' - with its male narrator and his disfiguring birthmark, and `Wood', the story of Roy and Lea.
`You think that would have changed things? The answer is of course, and for a while, and never.'
In most of the stories, knowledge comes to the reader in pieces as the story moves between present and past. In each of the stories we see events and relationships as the characters, mostly female, remember (and sometimes reinterpret) them. I did not like most of these characters, but what they did (or how they reacted) often made an uncomfortable form of sense as the stories unfolded. I found in many stories I wanted to know more, because I'd become involved enough in the story to not want it to finish when it did. I think it's an issue of comfort rather than incompleteness. The stories include a number of momentous and sensational events: including adultery, murder, suicide and violence. But these events are not the centre of each story which generally revolves around relationships or consequences.
Yes, I will be reading more of Ms Munro's fiction. But not just yet: the devastating effect of some relationships is reality, but it's a form of reality I need in measured doses.
Another wonderful collection from one who is fast becoming my favourite short story writer of all time. And the title story - "Too Much Happiness" - based on an actual person, is a true Russian tragic epic in microcosm. And we know it's going to end in tears, so we know we won't be affected. But we are affected. I had real tears in my eyes.
One magical sentence did it for me -
"Sophia Kovalesky was buried in what was then called the New Cemetery, in Stockholm, at three o'clock in the afternoon of a still cold day when the breath of mourners and onlookers hung in clouds on the frosty air."
I ordered this book after seeing it reviewed in Red magazine and was excited to read it. Some of the short stories were nice easy readers, some a bit more thought provoking and some just plain bizarre. During parts of the book I couldn't put it down, during others I struggled to bother reading on.
Each story is a little gem taking you to unexpected places. I would describe it as everyday life writ large instantly comprehensible provoking compassion and empathy. The subjects are pretty mundane, run of the mill it is Munro's portraiture which is outstanding.