"Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" by Alice Munro

Restless girls and adulterous wives contemplate the bargains they've made with life in these masterly stories by a modern-day Chekhov.

Published December 6, 2001 6:22PM (EST)

The unremarkable lives of ordinary middle-class men and women living mostly in Ontario and British Columbia -- it's hard to think of less exciting subject matter than this, and yet Alice Munro has spun dozens and dozens of absorbing short stories out of just such unromantic straw. Like Chekhov -- an early master of the form, to whom she is the rightful heir -- Munro is fascinated by lives half-lived, alternatives glimpsed and shied away from, brief transgressions cherished in memory for decades, bad decisions, survival strategies and the perversity of fate. She's hardheaded, but she loves all the folds of the human heart, and knows how to separate and catalog the many layers in the tissue of emotion as it deepens through the years.

The stories in this new collection don't play dazzling tricks with time and memory as some of her recent work has, but they're sagacious nevertheless. The title story seems to be careening toward disaster when Edith, a bored teenage girl, plays Cyrano with the plain, stolid housekeeper who takes care of her equally bored best friend, Sabitha. The two girls send the woman forged love letters, composed with an almost scary facility by the too-clever Edith and ostensibly from Sabitha's wandering, hapless, widowed father. The results of Edith's mean joke surprise even her, and suggest that the grand new life she has imagined for herself once she manages to get "out of this town and away from all the people who thought they knew her," might also prove less than obedient to her plans.

"Post and Beam" features Lorna, a young mother, who, like more than one woman in the book, has married an older man and is beginning to resent his tendentious ways. The title comes from the style of the couple's house: "The architecture is always preeminent, the builder had told them, and Brendan repeated this, as well as the word 'contemporary' when introducing anybody to the house." He also hauls out a magazine with "an article about the style, with photographs -- though not of this particular house." That last clause is classic Munro; her characters never live in houses that are photographed by magazines, but the more insufferable ones among them aspire to such things. Lorna, the wife, has escaped the straitened circumstances of her family, but her cousin Polly hasn't, and when Polly comes to Toronto for a visit, Lorna's two lives collide painfully. She fears the worst, she makes a bargain with God and in the end loses something she'd only begun to realize was her last hope.

As the two descriptions above suggest, an Alice Munro story is dense with character and complication; sometimes they span 30 years or more. They're like compressed novels, three-course meals rather than the unsatisfying canapes most short stories resemble. They are replete with the histories of restless girls trying to shake off their mundane origins and grown women who have built dream castles around a single, breathless, unconfessed adultery. One such woman remembers the last, cold thing her one-time lover said to her -- but only years later, after her husband has died and she's in danger of regretting her decision to stay with him. The newly excavated memory of that "little, self-preserving movement he made" allows her "to view [her lover] now with an everyday mystification, as if he had been a husband." This is the terrain of love seen from the long prospect, a seasoned view. As unprepossessing as her characters may seem, Munro knows that their lives include the far reaches of ambition, betrayal, regret and, finally, wisdom.

Next pick: A black American in Africa battles a curse, and his own desires.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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