How lovely of you to meet me here at First Cup, my favorite local coffee house. It seems we have the place to ourselves this morning – those sheets of freezing rain pouring from the sky must have kept everyone at home. Everyone except Amy, my favorite barista (who was thrilled to have The Sunday Salon gather here) – and you of course. So settle in -that leather chair in the corner is quite comfy – and let me order coffee for you.
I’m enormously excited to tell you about my reading this week, for I’ve just finished my second short story collection. When I chose Friend of My Youth by Alice Munroe as one of my selections for the Short Story Challenge, I was aware of her reputation as a short story writer par excellence, and that reputation is certainly well deserved. Each one of these 10 stories unfolds like slow motion photography, the characters revealing their deep, often surprising secrets with cool restraint, as the stories of their lives develop before our eyes.
Like Brenda, (Five Points) who “used to teach nursery school,” and her husband Cornelius “who was twelve years older.” Now they live on a farm and sell used appliances, which Cornelius “fixes up.” And in the evenings, Brenda drives out of town to meet Neil, her lover. When she sets eyes on him, waiting for her in his Mercury, “it’s like hitting water when you’re dead of heat and scratched and bitten all over from picking berries in the summer bush – the lapping sweetness, the cool kindness of it soaking up all your troubles in its hidden depths.”
And Georgia, (Differently) who works part-time in a bookstore, while her husband Ben is “off on his yearly cruise in the Navy.” She enjoys meeting people, talking with them about books, making cups of raspberry tea. When Miles first comes into the store, leaving his motorcycle parked at the curb, she’s immediately drawn to his “valiant profile, his dusty red hair (he took off his helmet and shook out his hair before coming into the store), and his quick, slouching, insolent, invading way of moving.” Soon, with his “oblivious prowling, and unsmiling, lengthy, gray-eyed looks, he had Georgia in a disturbed and not disagreeable state.” So when he asks her to go riding on his motorcycle, “Georgia said yes; she knew what was bound to happen.”
(Is it getting warm in here, or is it just me?)
The mysteries of life – of which clandestine sexuality is only one – figure largely in each of these stories. A recent widow travels to Scotland to connect with the people and places her husband spoke of seeing during his service in the war, and finds things not at all as she expected them to be (Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass). A retired minister creates an elaborate ruse in order to live the remainder of his life on his own terms (Pictures of the Ice). And, in the title story, a woman’s strange dreams about her mother’s last illness reveal some complex truths about their relationship.
I was drawn to each of the characters in these stories, completely involved in their tales of birth, marriage, divorce, death. My heart ached for them, these women from small Canadian farming communities coming of age in the 50’s and 60’s, and confronted with the task of remaking their lives in a world where all the expectations have suddenly changed.
Alice Munroe is a remarkable writer, her words chosen so carefully, her sentences structured so beautifully, creating rich, warm portraits of people and place. Each story is completely satisfying (even to this ravenous reader who has never before found short stories fulfilling), with the complexity of a novel deftly compacted into just a few pages. These are “writer’s stories,” so perfectly crafted they become the “true north” in the galaxy of short story writing.
Friend of My Youth has converted me, a short story cynic, into a short story lover. Now, I can’t wait to get my hands on another one of Munroe’s collections – and since she’s written at least 10 of them (and only one novel!), I’ll have plenty to feast on for quite some time.
I’m so excited about this collection, that I want to share it with you, especially if you’re a short story cynic like I was~ (come on, admit it – I know you’re out there.) Leave me a comment and confess all – one of you will win a brand new copy of Friend of My Youth.
I’m willing to bet that you too will be converted.
And now Sunday afternoon stretches in front of me. I have new books to start~The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim sits on top of the stack. And The View From Castle Rock (another Munroe short story) is also on my chair at home, this month’s selection for A Curious Singularity, the short story blog/discussion group, which I’ve decided to join. (see, told you I was converted!)
Oh, look~ I think the rain may have let up.
Shall we venture outside and see?
by Alice Munroe
published 1990, by Alfred Knopf