All of Alice Munro's work holds a special place in my heart. I know, that sounds really cheesy, but I'm not sure if there's any other way, really, to express it. I grew up just outside of 'Jubilee'. If you've read Lives of Girls and Women, you'll know Jubilee. Jubilee is modeled, and modeled pretty tightly, after Munro's hometown. I grew up fully aware of who she was and ridiculously proud of this woman I had never met who had gone to my high school, and wrote fearlessly about the place in which she grew up.
If she could live through the scorn that small town Ontario so often levels against the readers and the writers, the introverts of the world, then so could I. If she could triumph on the other side of high school with her passion and her joy for words still intact, well then, so could I. If a writer of her caliber, of her talent, could come out of such a tiny little town, surely it could produce a second.
(Of course, I didn't realize it was already working on it. This guy is also from my hometown. I have yet to read anything by him, but I hear he's good!)
At the time, I had never even read a single word of her writing. And yet, I loved what she represented to me. These days, I need her far less. The kids who couldn't understand the purpose of a book grew up and started reading themselves. I grew up and, for a long time, set books aside. And my dream of being a writer? It grew up with me and became a job that looked nothing at all like what I thought it would. Still, even though I didn't read a single one of her story collections cover to cover until I was in university, Munro is important to me.
by Alice Munro
Knowing all that, I'm sure you can understand that I was excited when Alice Munro came out with a new book but not excited enough to rush out, buy it, and read it in the same month it came out. My love of Munro comes not from her books, but from who she is. Irrational, I know. Fortunately, her way with words has forever solidified that irrational, undeserved love into an undying, unconditional adoration.
Which is how I can say that I don't think this is her best work, but that you should most definitely read this book. It's full of trains, and kitchens, and awakening, and words strung beautifully and simply together. It's full of relationships and moments and honesty and beauty and raw, harsh reality. If you already know you like Munro, you will love this book. If you love southwestern Ontario, or Toronto, or Vancouver, or, well, Canada, you will like this book.
Munro claims this book is her last. She's said that before, but this time, I'll allow that perhaps it's true. If it is her last, it's perfect. She included, at the end of the collection, four stories that are less fiction and more memoir, recollections of her childhood that are blatantly honest and raw and beautiful. As I read them, they felt not quite as polished as the rest of her work but that just makes sense. Since when is life as polished as fiction?
I felt this lack of polish in a few of the other stories in this collection as well, and this is why I say that I don't think it's her best work. The stories didn't slide into me as neatly as those of Friend of My Youth, perhaps. But, maybe this has nothing to do with it not being her best work; maybe it's because the way I view the world has changed. My connection to her small town Ontario has grown thinner, and I've come to realize that the young Alice Munro and I were growing up in two very different worlds, despite occupying the same classrooms at the same high school. In this collection, I felt for the first time, the difference between myself and the characters, rather than the similarities.
Still, I loved it and will treasure each story always, especially if it really is her last.