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Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014


Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014

It didn't take the Swedish Academy's decision to award Canadian writer Alice Munro the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature to secure her place in the highest echelon of contemporary authors. Her two Giller Prizes, National Book Critics Circle Award and Man Booker International Prize, along with mountains of critical praise, already assured that well-deserved recognition to someone the Academy called the "master of the contemporary short story."

But now, for readers who might be looking for a convenient point of entry into Munro's imposing body of work (one novel and 139 short stories, by the count of Jane Smiley, who wrote its foreword), FAMILY FURNISHINGS, a selection of 24 of her stories published in the six collections she's produced in the past 20 years, readily provides it. This hefty volume showcases all of the qualities that have endeared Munro to so many readers: psychological acuity, unstudied but elegant prose, and an ability to record meticulously the emotional temperature of the most complex and daunting human interactions.

The title of Munro's only novel, LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN, could have served this volume equally well. It's not that men are absent from these stories, but almost invariably Munro's protagonists are women, many of them young, who somehow are thwarted, by choice or circumstance, from achieving their desires. Whether it's the teacher in "Amundsen" who arrives at a rural tuberculosis sanitarium and embarks on an ill-advised relationship with the head doctor there, or the restless Vancouver poet willing to travel across Canada to risk her marriage for a relationship with a man she meets briefly at a cocktail party in "To Reach Japan," Munro understands the sometimes dangerously high stakes in her characters' lives.

"This hefty volume showcases all of the qualities that have endeared Munro to so many readers: psychological acuity, unstudied but elegant prose, and an ability to record meticulously the emotional temperature of the most complex and daunting human interactions."

And don't be misled by the warmly smiling woman who looks out from the back cover of this book. Munro's stories are anything but the literary fiction equivalent of the cozy mystery. There's plenty of violence and sex (described with a restraint impressive for our confessional age) in these stories. "The Love of a Good Woman," the first story in the collection, features a murder provoked by sexual jealousy. "Child's Play" is the reflection of a mature woman who looks back on a dreadful act of violence she and a friend committed at a summer camp decades earlier, while "The Eye" is a piece of autobiographical fiction describing a 10-year-old girl's first encounter with death.

Virtually all of these slices of life, most of which achieve a novelistic complexity in little more than 30 pages (relatively long for a conventional short story and yet not long enough to be classified as novellas), offer something that make them stand out in memory, but at least two are especially striking.

"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" (the inspiration for the 2006 film Away from Her, starring Julie Christie) tells the story of a philandering husband confronted with a surprising dilemma when his wife begins a new relationship in the nursing home where she suffers from dementia. In “Dimensions,” a young mother loses her three children to her husband’s violence and is reconciled to their loss in an almost inexplicable fashion. Along with the stories "The Children Stay" and "Runaway," it features a protagonist who resorts to flight, in some form, to escape her circumstances.  

Munro's fiction doesn't suffer from the fact that much of it is rooted firmly in a recurring setting. Though she recounts the tedium and hardships of an 18th-century sea crossing ("The View from Castle Rock") or reimagines the life of 19th-century mathematical genius and novelist Sophia Kovalesky ("Too Much Happiness"), most of these stories have at least some connection to the unprepossessing territory of southwestern Ontario, where Munro was born. In the introduction to the paperback edition of her 1996 SELECTED STORIES, she explained why that locale holds such fascination for her:

"I am intoxicated by this particular landscape, by the almost flat fields, the swamps, the hardwood bush lots, by the continental climate with its extravagant winters. I am at home with the brick houses, the falling-down barns, the occasional farms that have swimming pools and airplanes, the trailer parks, burdensome old churches, Wal-Mart, and Canadian Tire. I speak the language."

That mastery of place allows Munro to write with economy and assurance. When she describes the "reddening fall woods and the dry fields of stubble and the cows crowding the barn porches" or a local denizen whose "life of malnutrition, dirt and discomfort is his own choice," we understand that her decision to sacrifice breadth for depth in her fiction isn't a failure of imagination, but rather a spark for it.

A final thought: Ordinarily, I don't dispense advice about how one should go about reading a particular book, but it seems essential here. The constraints imposed by having to read and review this book in a limited time compelled me to work my way through the more than 600 pages of FAMILY FURNISHINGS without pause, as one would read a novel. Because you have the luxury of time, I encourage to read one story, put the book aside, and allow Munro's talent to work its magic. Do that, and you'll return each time invigorated and eager to experience more of her gift.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on November 21, 2014

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014
by Alice Munro

  • Publication Date: September 15, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101872357
  • ISBN-13: 9781101872352