Sunday, October 16, 2016

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Unconnected to the life of love, uncolored by love, the world resumes its own, its natural and callous importance. This is first a blow, then an odd consolation. And already I felt my old self - my old, devious, ironic, isolated self - beginning to breathe again and stretch and settle, though all around it my body clung cracked and bewildered, in the stupid pain of loss.

A very short version of this review would be: I agree with Chris.  Here is a longer version: Munro gives us the coming of age story of Del Jordan--we watch her grow into her sexuality, but also her mind, her faith, and her understanding of the world around her. The cover of the book led me to believe that this book was going to be somewhere on the level of a cheap romance novel--usually books where Cosmo provides the review on the cover and uses the phrase "one girl's very special growing up" are not for me--but it had significantly more depth than expected and was a wonderful read.

Del's transition into adulthood takes many forms. Her first experiences with love and sex are presented with a casual honesty that make them feel that much more real and resonant; she feels the same odd combination of too far behind and too far ahead that most teenagers feel, and Munro captures the confusion and brutality of young love beautifully. Del wrestles with her own brilliance as well, watching the isolation her mother has created for herself by being intelligent, while hoping to use her own mind to escape Jubilee. Again, like many teenagers, her romantic and academic worlds speed up at the same time and complicate and build off of each other, and the tensions Munro creates were beautifully crafted and painfully real: "Well-groomed girls frightened me to death. I didn't like to go near them, for fear I would be smelly. I felt there was a radical difference between them and me, as if we were made of different substances." There are so many lines like this in the book; lines where Munro perfectly captures not only what it is like to be a teenager, but also what it is like to be a woman. I literally have this exact thought several times a day as a thirty year old in New York City, but the thought is just as believable in the mind of a teenager in a provincial Canadian town.

The women in this book are fabulous. In a slim volume, Munro has created an entire cast of fascinating, intricately thought out women: the kind of attention to character you rarely see given to more than one or two women in a novel three times this size. There are Del's aunts, the gatekeepers of Jubilee propriety; her best friend, Naomi, who veers off towards a version of the aforementioned "well groomed" womanhood much faster than Del; Fern Dogherty, their tenant and a former opera singer with a possibly seedy past. Each chapter brings a new addition, and even the women who appear for just a few pages are rich in detail and thought or giggle provoking. Of all of the women, Del's mother, Ada, an embattled, clearly brilliant woman is my favorite. Trapped in a cow town and constantly trying to bring some sense of sophistication to her own life and to her daughter's, she is permanently at odds with the small world of Jubilee. Knowledge (mostly in the form of encyclopedic trivia) is her only escape, and she earnestly tries to spread the love by selling encyclopedias, an past time which even then seems outdated and odd:
Knowledge was not chilly to her, no, it was warm and lovely. Pure comfort even at this stage of her life to know the location of the Celebes Sea, and the Pitti Palace, to get the wives of Henri VII in order, and be informed about the social system of ants, the methods of sacrificial butchery used by the Aztecs, the plumbing in Knosos. She could get carried away, telling about such things; she would tell anybody. "Your mother knows such a lot of things, my," said Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace lightly, unenviously, and I saw that to some people, maybe to most people, knowledge was just oddity; it suck out like warts. 

Munro's novel, so rich in women (and bright, thoughtful, interesting women at that), is the perfect antidote to a world in which Donald Trump is being given a daily platform to spew his misogyny. The title comes from a speech Ada (seemingly about how getting pregnant will ruin your life). She proclaims: "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." While the changes Munro and Ada were hoping for are not yet fully here, books like this get us a little closer.


Christopher said...

That passage about knowledge was one of my favorites too.

Julie said...

I love Alice Munro- her book Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage is one of my favorite ever.