Alice Munro: Too Much Happiness

toomuchhappinessWith an unwitting stroke of irony, this book was shelved, thanks to its promising title, under ‘mood-boosting books’ at my local library. I did wonder a little at that, as past experience with Alice Munro had acquainted me with her sharp eye for dissecting trouble under a seemingly happy façade…

And sure enough, this was another collection of stories with brutal themes – families destroyed by anger and resentment, wrestling for control, manipulation and deceit. Her style is, as always, cool and collected, all about controlled fury rather than rants, about women’s hidden strengths and men’s visible weaknesses, the cruelty of children and the countless small hurts which add up to a lifetime of cracks and fissures.

The title story is about a real person, Sophia Kovalevsky, the first Russian female mathematician and the first woman to hold a professorial chair at a North European university (in Sweden). Munro riffs on the challenges and possibilities of this extraordinary woman, ‘full of glowing and exceptional ideas’, who was both politically engaged and also a prose writer, and who died at the age of forty-one.

We do get to see Sophia’s family in this story, but other stories are much more explicitly about those ties which bind us. And the family is not seen as a place of harbour and refuge in Alice Munro’s world. In fact, quite the opposite: men as dominant bullies taking advantage of young girls who then wreak revenge (‘Wenlock Edge’), men and women as more or less subtle murderers (in ‘Dimensions’ or ‘Free Radicals’), children teasing or harassing those who are different to themselves (‘Face’ or ‘Child’s Play’), first wives being abandoned , families reforming and mothers feeling disappointed about their offspring (‘Deep-Holes’ and ‘Fiction’). These are all people I would hate to encounter in real life… and yet I probably have.

alicemunroOften described as ‘stark and unflinching’, you can certainly understand why this dissection of modern family life is disturbing and unforgettable. I cannot read too much of her in one go, I have to admit. Add to this the fact that Munro often edits her stories quite extensively between the first publication (usually in a literary journal) and the final appearance in a collection, and you can see just sharp her scalpel is, and how precise and exquisite her style.

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16 thoughts on “Alice Munro: Too Much Happiness”

  1. Confession time: I haven’t read anything by Alice Munro. Maybe a short story back at uni, 10 years ago. But this book sounds perfect. In these times of women having to fight for their basic rights, the tale of the first European female professor will surely be an inspiration.

    1. It was the longest and the most unusual story in the collection – a collection of impressionistic vignettes that build up to a picture of the scientific and immigrant community in Europe at a particular point in time.

  2. I wonder if they will reshelve it there when you return it, or whether another librarian more familiar with its contents will amend that. I want a shelf that says Pick Me Up In Winter, too much melancholy between the pages at present!

    1. That is, I believe, the intention of that mood-boosting shelf. To be fair, they do have some gentle reads, but this one was just so provocatively misplaced. Which reminds me, I should have warned the librarian when I returned it, shouldn’t I? (but I used one of those machines which they now force you to use in libraries)

  3. Her style is indeed remarkable, but I’ve never managed to get through any of her books. Quite a struggle if you’re bent on staying optimistic!

  4. I have only read one collection by Alice Munro but I do have Dear Life tbr. I love the sound of this one though, and your review serves to remind me how I have meant to read much more Alice Munro.

  5. Great review. I have not read any Munro yet even though I read a fair share of short stories. It is lovely that the first story is about a real person. Is the story a work of imagination or did it really happen to SOphia? Any idea?

  6. Alice Munro looks like everybody’s grandmother. Is she retelling…the so-called literal truth or a master at building a fiction’s narrative. That is what I find fascinating about her. She keeps me wondering….

  7. I love the idea of a mood-boosting shelf. Less sure about this collection though. Perhaps I need to be in a stronger place myself before contemplating this one 🙂

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