A new collection from Alice Munro, one of our era's true masters of the short story, is always cause for celebration. Unlike many writers, whose short-story writing is an adjunct to more lucrative novel-writing, Munro has concentrated almost exclusively on the form she has published only one novel, but 10 volumes of stories. She has laid claim to the genre and, despite its limitations, can accomplish more in a single story than most writers achieve in hundreds of pages. Every one of her stories offers a fully realized world unto itself.
The eight stories in Runaway all bear single-word titles, but the simplicity ends there. Each has a woman or women at its center, women of different ages and circumstances, navigating through worlds ranging from the 1920s to today. Love, or sometimes romantic notions masquerading as love, is generally at the fore, but the stories always go deeper. These are lives filled with mistakes, missteps and misapprehensions, yet they are essentially ordinary lives. The characters' petty embarrassments and life-altering misjudgments could be our own. A common Munro device is to begin in the now and hurtle back to the then. The story "Passion" begins, "Not so long ago, Grace went looking for the Traverses' summer house in the Ottawa Valley." It is a gentle, nostalgic opening that belies the deception and death that took place in that house 40 years before. An undercurrent of violence also drives the haunting title story, about a young wife who lacks the will to break free from an abusive husband. Missed opportunities and lies are two themes that Munro approaches from many angles. Both play a role in "Powers," the most stylistically innovative of the stories. At its core is a young girl with psychic gifts who falls prey to a man who sees her as his meal ticket, but it is as much the story of another woman who, for her own reasons, foregoes more than one opportunity to save her friend. "Trespasses" features Munro's youngest heroine, a little girl named Lauren, who is uprooted to a small town by her bohemian parents, where she befriends a woman who hints she may be her real mother. The most heartbreaking story in the collection, "Tricks," is about a frustrated spinster who, on a solo trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, meets and falls in love with a Montenegrin clock maker. The gently tragic outcome is worthy of Henry James, Chekov or the Bard himself.
Three stories are about the same woman, and read in sequence they form a kind of novella. In the first, Juliet, a smart young woman from Ontario, heads to British Columbia to teach at a private girls' school. On the train west she meets a man with whom she will ultimately find an imperfect passion. Later, baby in tow, she returns to her hometown as her mother is dying, and with the distance of age reappraises much of what she has held true about her parents and their marriage. In the final story, her now-grown daughter joins a cult, and vanishes from her mother's life. From these three episodes, and in just 110 or so pages, Munro manages the narrative weight and emotional heft of a full-fledged novel.
For Munro, the devil is in the details, and she can deftly zero in on a character's essence with a single, telling attribute. Grace, for instance, hates the movie she sees on a date, Father of the Bride, because she cannot abide the Elizabeth Taylor character, a spoiled rich girl who wheedles and demands. Robin, the star-crossed woman in "Tricks," needlessly fusses about a particular green dress. Once a Classics scholar, Juliet finds connection with the ancients, even naming her daughter Penelope though it is Juliet herself who ultimately waits in vain for a loved one's return.
With seemingly endless treasures to be unearthed in a single Alice Munro story, an entire collection offers almost an embarrassment of riches. As her admiring readers have discovered, her stories refuse to go away. They almost beg for a second or third reading, and can linger in your memory, sometimes for years, sometimes forever. That Munro can achieve this extraordinary feat within the limits of the short-story form, and do so time and time again, is nothing short of astonishing.