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Alice Munro's 'Too Much Happiness,' reviewed by Jonathan Penner

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By Jonathan Penner
Saturday, November 21, 2009

TOO MUCH HAPPINESS

By Alice Munro

Knopf. 304 pp. $25.95

Throughout this new collection, as always in her distinctive stories, Alice Munro's style is vivid, her attention tireless, her curiosity omnivorous, and her sentences drawn from the freshest of springs. But at the intersection of plot and character, something is missing.

In "Free Radicals," Nita is dying of cancer and mourning her husband's death. She stole him from his first wife, we learn. But none of that matters when she's visited by an insane triple murderer.

"Wood" is the story of Roy, a furniture refinisher. We learn about his work, his ailing wife, her many relatives. But again, it doesn't matter. The story ends with an injury in the woods and Roy's narrow escape from death.

Why Nita, why Roy? The "who" ought to shape the "what," and in such stories it doesn't. These plots could have befallen almost anybody.

Correspondingly, the "what" should matter to the "who." In "Child's Play," Marlene recalls Verna, a feeble-minded girl she knew in childhood. At summer camp Marlene drowned her. But we don't learn that until the end of the story -- a withholding of information that feels manipulative. Perplexingly, this terrible episode seems to have had no effect on Marlene, making it hard to see why the author gave her such a past.

In "Wenlock Edge," a story bursting with vivid invention, the narrator recalls her pretty, profoundly ignorant college roommate, Nina. Nina is untroubled by her shortcomings, assertive of her will. She dominates the narrator by tickling her into helpless exhaustion. This element is frequent in Munro's work: an assertive, crude second character eclipsing a complex, intelligent, introspective first character.

Nina is the mistress of old Mr. Purvis. Once, when she can't come to him, Mr. Purvis invites the narrator instead. He expects her to dine naked -- and she does, unwilling to seem a coward. After dinner, she reads poetry to him in the library. A gentleman in speech and bearing, he asks her, please, not to cross her legs.

With all its strengths, the story's weakness is the disconnection between the remembered youth and the old rememberer, of whose later life and present circumstances we know nothing. This is a problem that Munro faces often, because most of her stories cover most of a lifetime.

"Some Women" begins, "I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am." Then the narrator tells what she witnessed at age 13. She had a summer job then, attending a dying man, Bruce Crozier. Bruce's mother rules the roost, a fat woman who smokes and smears on lipstick like jam -- class markers for Munro. But even Mrs. Crozier seems seduced by another self-assured, even more ignorant character: her masseuse, Roxanne. Having charmed the mother, Roxanne makes a play for the dying son, flirting, teasing, telling smutty jokes.

The narrator is horrified to see Bruce watching "every twitch of her candy lips and sway of her sumptuous bottom." Munro evokes these people wonderfully, as sensitive to their twitches and sways as a spider in its web. But here again, the story's limitation is that -- absorbing and delightful though the narrative is -- there's no connection with who the narrator is now. The story merely ends with the line "I grew up, and old."

Grown old, does she understand things differently? What have all those years added and changed? In the story of her life, what does the remembered story mean? Why does it matter, not to you or me, but to her?

Such questions don't arise in "Fiction." Joyce and Jon seem happy, yet Jon leaves her for the crude, tattooed, very assured Edie. Joyce has a yielding nature and surrenders her husband to Edie without a fight. We jump forward 30 years and Joyce meets Christie, a young writer, one of whose stories seems familiar. In fact, it's the story of Joyce herself, Jon and Edie. Christie is Edie's daughter.

Trembling with emotion, Joyce goes to Christie's book signing, bearing chocolates as a gift, eager to claim a connection. But the signing is like an assembly line. The bookstore owner snatches away the chocolate box as though it held a bomb, and the line moves on. Someday, Joyce imagines, this will make a funny story. It's deeply sad that she can think so. The yielding person she always was, Joyce loses again to the self-assured -- a story Munro knows and tells so well.

Penner's most recent book is "This Is My Voice," a story collection.


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