Book Review: The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

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Because we are all born and will die it can seem convenient to imagine the trajectory of life as a straight line connecting these two major events but anyone with any modicum of introspection can deduce that this is not the case. The path of one’s life, though assumed to be better the more linear it is, seemingly because a straight line is more perfect that a jagged squiggle, is hardly ever one continuous uninterrupted train ride from beginning to end, otherwise palm readers would have been out a job a millennia ago and life would be very boring and predictable. In the journey of a life there would be many moments, instances and events that will forcibly shift things, changing perspectives and causing inner spiritual rebirths. Also, when the path of your life changes all the variables will change too and the outcome of that shift will infinitely multiply the possibilities of the person you will become.

The funny thing is most of the time the changes don’t come heralded, there is no pulsating beam of light from the heavens, no mystical signs or wailing choir of Angels  proclaiming that everything is about to change or that something significant is about to happen. And so it was that on a seemingly ordinary day in London during my many habitual trips to Borders I discovered Alice Munro and my life changed.

Alice Munro, a quick Google search will tell you, is an 84 year old Canadian short story writer who is tremendously revered and exceptionally gifted in her chosen prose form. She has several awards including the Booker prize for fiction won in 2009 at age 77 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013.  She has written 11 short story collections but I will pick just one to talk about in an attempt to highlight how and why I feel she shifted the trajectory of my life for the better.

The Progress of Love was published in 1986 and is a collection of eleven stories all about people living in an unspecified time but in provincial, small town Canada. I have always believed that the best type of writers have a narrow field of focus but can write deeply and eloquently about their chosen point of view in a way that says something universal that anyone can understand and relate to. In one of the stories called “Jesse and Meribeth” for example she describes the friendship between two teenaged school girls and how one event over the summer changed them and revealed something pertinent about their true character. Alice Munro has this amazing trick of writing stories that feel like novels where she completely elucidates a person, their entire psyche and soul by describing one event in their life which at first seems ordinary or mundane. And the really clever thing about her writing is that you can never guess or phantom the ending or the “twist” so to speak until you read the whole thing because she builds it up, furnishing the story with intricate details until she reveals the core of the story.  A quote might suffice at this point

“…..I saw MaryBeth shut in, with her treats and typewriter, growing sweeter and fatter….but myself shedding dreams and lies and vows and errors, unaccountable. I didn’t see that I was the same one, embracing, repudiating. I thought I could turn myself inside out, over and over again, and tumble through the world scot free.”(Jesse and Meribeth- the progress of love pg188)

In another story titled “Lichen” she describes a man (David) and his much younger girlfriend (Catherine) who visit his ex wife (Stella) with whom he has grown up children and still maintains a cordial, platonic and almost maternal relationship with. She manages to capture so many emotions that lie between the formerly married couple and tries to define the mysterious thing in some men that makes them perennially unsatisfied in their relationships and repeatedly causes them to be unfaithful. Here’s another quote;

“.. It was strange the way they said these things. They used to say bitter and wounding things and pretend when they said them to be mildly amused, dispassionate, even kindly. Now this tone that was once pretense had soaked down, deep down, through all their sharp feelings and the bitterness, though not transformed, seemed stale, useless and formal.” (Lichen- the progress of love, pg 54)

Arguably the best story in this collection, although they are all superb in their own way, is “A Queer Streak”. This one is particularly amazing because of the breadth of years it covers thus enhancing its novel like feel and because it has the most interesting and unexpected twist. I really want to quote from this one too but it’s too hard, I’d literally have to write down the entire thing.

The unifying theme of course in these stories is love, the different forms of it and how it changes over the years. It describes love as a mysterious thing, hallmarked by a tremendous sacrifice or important event that reveals something pertinent about human nature. It describes the love between married and divorced couples, friends, and siblings in deep, rich and revealing ways. After reading my first Alice Munro story I could no longer appreciate a lot of other writers. She completely elevated my expectations and I no longer required books to just amuse and entertain me but to educate me, to open up locked up portions of myself to me, to reveal and mould a more unique and tangible view of life, my own life and my relationships with others. I cannot recommend her highly enough and with that I’ll leave one last quote;

I knew that “gone” meant dead…………the word “gone” seemed full of nothing but a deep relief and even excitement- the excitement you feel when a door closes and your house sinks back to normal and you let yourself loose into all the free space around you. That was in my father’s voice, too-behind the apology……but my mother hadn’t been a burden-she hadn’t been sick a day and far from feeling relieved at her death, my father took it hard. He never got used to living alone….” (The progress of love –the progress of love pg 1)

 

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