One of the most fulfilling things about this project, for me, is the revelation that comes when you are totally blown away by a book or an author you had not expected. Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping was like that, and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower, and so is Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women. It's not just that these books are better than I had expected them to be, but that they remind me of how good books really can be; they belong, if you ask me, among the very best fiction the modern era has produced, and without this project I would have likely never have read them. It's nice to have your suspicions confirmed--that there are great authors out there, still in a way hidden like veins of oil or ore, underground. The fact that all three of them are women may be a coincidence, and it may be further evidence that women authors still lack the kind of cultural prestige they deserve.
I have to admit that the title of Munro's collection didn't compel me to read it. Lives of Girls and Women brings to mind a lot of sentimentalist genre fiction, or something that might be adapted by the Lifetime Channel. And to be sure, that is what the book is about. The mother of these stories' narrator, Del Jordan, employs the phrase in a characteristic piece of advice:
"There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connection with men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals. He shall hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force, a little closer than his dog, a little dearer than his horse. Tennyson wrote that. It's true. Was true. You will want to have children, though."
That was how much she knew me.
What Del's mother says, of course, is true. But in its dry, encyclopedic manner it fails to understand the experience of what it means to be a girl in love, and the deep attraction to the mystery of sex. Del is smart and ambitious, but she in her turn falls in love with a local rustic named Garnet French. Garnet is no intellectual match for Del, but he is raw and physical and she has her first intercourse with him in the yard outside of their home:
In the morning I went around the broken peonies and a little patch of blood, yes, dried blood on the ground. I had to mention it to somebody. I said to my mother, "There's blood on the ground at the side of the house."
"I saw a cat there yesterday tearing a bird apart. It was from a big striped tom, I don't know where it came from."
"You should come and take a look at it."
"What? I've got better things to do."
Del knows, like her mother, that there is something deeper in the relationship between men and women than the stiff intellectualism her mother--who travels around the county selling encyclopedias--will allow. She knows that this depth is part of a story that plays out timelessly even in the provincial Ontario backwater of Jubilee that is there home. As she says in the passage I quoted above, the lives of people everywhere are like "deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum." In this way she counters male critics who have no patience for stereotypically "feminine" writing (I'm thinking of V. S. Naipaul's dismissals of Jane Austen). Munro knows that--for men as well as women--domestic life is just life, and that life itself has its profundity and mysteries wherever it is found.
The sexual themes of Lives of Girls and Women don't really appear until the second half, though, when Del is old enough to ponder them. The first few stories of the book, when Del is younger, deal with old literary mainstays like family, death, and faith. With a book this good, it's best, maybe to just get out of the way and let it speak for itself. Here's young Del considering the corpse of a cow in the woods:
Being dead, it invited desecration. I wanted to poke it, trample it, pee on it, anything to punish it, to show what contempt I had for its being dead. Beat it up, break it up, spit on it, tear it, throw it away! But still it had power, lying with a gleaming strange map on its back, its straining neck, the smooth eye. I had never once looked at a cow alive and thought what I thought now: why should there be a cow? Why should the white spots be shaped just the way they were, and never again, not on any cow or creature, shaped in exactly the same way? Tracing the outline of a continent again, digging the stick in, trying to make a definite line, I paid attention to its shape as I would sometimes pay attention to the shape of real continents or islands on real maps, as if the shape itself were a revelation beyond words, and I would be able to make sense of it, if I tried hard enough, and had time.
Another story, "The Age of Faith," is one of the best stories I've ever read about religious life:
If God could be discovered, or recalled, everything would be safe. Then you would see the things that I saw--just the dull grain of the wood in the floor boards, the windows of plain glass filed with thin branches and snowy sky--and the strange, anxious pain that just seeing things could create would be gone. It seemed plain to me that this was the only way the world could be borne, the only way it could be borne--if all those atoms, galaxies of atoms, were safe all the time, whirling away in Gods' mind. How could people rest, how could they even go on breathing and existing, until they were sure of this? they did go on, so they must be sure.
As Del grows older, these themes don't so much disappear as become incorporated into the themes of womanhood and sex, as if Munro is making us aware that death and faith are as much a part of that pair as anything else. Like Fitzgerald, she peoples Jubilee with a set of distinct, fascinating characters--a literary feat that I think is often taken for granted, so difficult it is--and like Robinson, she understands and communicates the powerful death of ordinary life. However removed our petty existences might seem from the most powerful mysteries of the universe, Munro says, in truth they are our only way of confronting them, and for that they deserve savoring.