Too Much Happiness Hardcover – Aug 25 2009
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Quill & Quire
In his 2004 New York Times review of Alice Munro’s Runaway, author Jonathan Franzen painted himself into a corner by bluntly stating what has likely occurred to most reviewers of Munro’s work: “Runaway is so good that I don’t want to talk about it here. Quotation can’t do the book justice, and neither can synopsis. The way to do it justice is to read it.” Exactly. Why bother plundering the thesaurus for not-too-trite superlatives or repeating for the umpteenth time that each of Munro’s stories is as rich and textured as a novel and that reading one of them replicates the experience of peeling away the most intimate and overlapping layers of several characters’ lives? Read the work. Just read the work. But the seasoned book-review reader, alert to the splashy tones of log rolling, to fetishistic enthusiasm and lazy hyperbole, is bound to recoil at this demand, asking, “Is the work really that good? Really?” Yes, the work is that good. The pertinent question is: why? Munro’s latest collection, Too Much Happiness, provides enough material for such an enquiry. The signature locations – the towns and cities of southwestern Ontario and coastal B.C. – are all accounted for, as are the minutely etched Munro characters, the striving young women boxed in by convention, family ties, and self-sabotage, and the careless and calculating men who promise them a richer life, then deliver too much or too little on that promise. There is also, in every story, any number of friends, lovers, cousins, maiden aunts, stricken mothers, distant fathers, and suddenly intimate strangers, each acting in ways that are both duplicitous and guileless, frank and secretive, stubborn and yielding. Munro excels at depicting such paradoxes. She roots her stories in the point of view of a single character whose conversational, introspective tone is initially endearing to the reader. I’m a little like that, the reader thinks, I observe things, I am often pulled out of the moment by a chance memory or association. Munro makes you like her protagonist, then through the action of the story makes you wish you’d withheld judgment a little longer. Hidden seams of resentment, pride, vanity, and schoolyard cruelty are revealed, and if readers are honest enough, they will eventually recognize a kinship with the story’s protagonist they’d likely never admit even to a close friend. “Fictions,” perhaps the collection’s best story, offers a master class in this technique. Joyce is a bright woman from a dreary Ontario town who marries Jon, her high school’s even brighter light. The pair trip around North America exploring the fringes of various countercultures before settling down in rural B.C. Jon works with wood, Joyce teaches music; together they build a workable life. When Jon leaves Joyce for his homely apprentice Edie, an ex-prostitute, the reader relishes Joyce’s withering assessment of Jon: “He’s such an infant sexually, it all makes you sick.” All very good, but it’s hard to sympathize with Joyce when she engineers a magnificent Christmas concert at the local school with no real purpose but to impress Jon, whom she assumes will attend with Edie, whose daughter Maggie is one of Joyce’s easily manipulated students. Later, our sympathies shift again when Joyce discovers that Maggie, now a successful author, has published a story about a small-town music teacher who temporarily transformed the life of an emotionally vulnerable student. The ending is restrained and completely surprising. Secondary characters, often introduced in off-hand anecdotes or meandering recollections, eventually emerge from the sidelines, shocking the story’s protagonist with their refusal to act according to type. The collection is stocked with such vibrant personalities, such as Roxanne, the chatty, dirty-joke-telling masseuse in “Some Women,” who brings unexpected lightness into the home of a dying man, or the confident best friend and summer-camp bunkmate who participates in a ghastly crime in “Child’s Play.” Munro also continues to experiment with narrative, creating a deliberate sense of formlessness that mimics the sudden twists and stutter-steps of her protagonists’ inner and outer lives. She does this by loosening or omitting key support beams in a story’s structure – details are forgotten or overlooked in the telling, intentions misinterpreted, wrong turns taken – creating strange but believable gaps in plausibility and causality. Many of the plots rely on coincidence, chance encounters, or uncharacteristic last-minute changes of plan, but Munro subtly links these eruptions of the uncanny to character and setting. The collection’s only near misstep is the title story. Though it contains the texture and complexity of Munro’s best work, “Too Much Happiness,” which fictionalizes a love affair involving 19th-century Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevski, lacks much of the attention-riveting, lived details of those stories set within Munro’s lifetime. The effect is a little disappointing, leaving the reader with the feeling of having read a great author in translation, the language a shade removed from the grandeur of the original. In the end, however, Too Much Happiness, like the majority of Munro’s work of the last quarter century, leaves this reviewer with nothing more original to say than that Alice Munro might be the best English-language author writing today.
“This book can make your skin crawl with its uncoverings of the transitoriness and precariousness of comfortable everyday existence…a masterpiece of plotting… Written with veteran assurance, brimming with intensely believeable characters and rich social detail, these dispatches from the most unsparing reaches of Munro’s imagination confirm her acclaimed place on the highest ground of contemporary fiction”
— Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
“She has the lightest of touches, with every word seeming entirely necessary”
— Lorna Bradbury, Telegraph Review
“Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories reaffirms her as a writer of piercing insight… Some of the most honest, intuitive and exacting fiction, long or short, of our time”
— Tom Gatti, The Times
“She is one of the grandees of English-language short fiction…Her prose is clean, precise and unmannered…she gives the impression of being able to make the form do pretty much anything she wants”
— Christopher Taylor, Saturday Guardian
“She writes with a beautiful, mathematical clarity, an elemental humanity and a marvellous, limpid, funny apprehension of what goes on”
— Jane Shilling Telegraph
“There is a substantial quality to Munro’s stories that makes you feel you have stumbled on an entire world, but have been given only a peek into the protagonists’ lives, which will continue apace when your eye has long since passed over them…Cleverly wrought, intense pieces of work”
— Rosemary Goring, Sunday Herald
“Alice Munro has done more than anyone to raise the status of the short story…really, who could be better?”
— Claire Harman, Evening Standard
“A style both calm and deliberate, fluid yet tightly controlled, stark yet compassionate, is what makes her insights into the human condition so profound”
— Mary Crockett, The Scotsman
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Top Customer Reviews
Short stories get a bad rap. I've heard people complain of finding them a waste of time, or hard to get into, or unsatisfying. Well, to those people I say: You have just not been reading good short stories. And Alice Munro writes good short stories. Her stories span years, lives, births and deaths--they are novels crammed into 30 pages and you never feel like it could have been longer or shorter. She writes real characters that breathe on the page.
Here the stories tend to also revolve around a single person who arrives in each story and disrupts or changes something in some way. Sometimes, like in Free Radicals, the person is obvious, the change overt; but in other stories, such as the title story Too Much Happiness or Wood it is much more subtle. These stories are mostly about women (as I think much of her work is) and many are told from the point of view of someone older and looking back on their lives, remarking on the person that sparked the change in their lives.
Sometimes the content can be shocking. Perhaps I had an unfair view of Munro going in that her stories would be somewhat bland. Too Much Happiness proved that I was wrong several times, as almost each story contains an event, some violence or treachery or sexual act, but which is never held over the reader in a vulgar way.
I look forward to working backwards now and discovering more from her.
A. It deals with the very real challenges facing vulnerable women in the modern world;
B. As a series of unrelated stories it offers very unique and creative situations which women are faced with having to make ultimately courageous decisions;
C. The stories are well crafted in respect of providing credible characters to match believable circumstances;
D. The main characters - dominated and often abused women - gradually emerge from their ordeals as tragic figures who are very chastened but emboldened by their ordeals;
E. Munro does a wonderful job in setting the tone of the conflicts in her stories so that the reader can actually feel the pain and anguish of soul resulting from these various altercations;
F. The author chooses a different kind of story to end the book: one that deals with how a mature woman avoids being victimized by other people's manipulations by moving on before she becomes entrapped;
G. As usual, Munro deals with common people and their down-to-earth predicaments, which endears her to many empathic Canadians who have been there and done that;
H. Her prose is so well measured that it is effortless to read;
I. Strategically-placed irony abounds in these stories;
J. She has renewed my interest in the genre of the short story; not an easy feat considering I usually do everything to avoid them because they are too flimsy in structure and content.
Alice Munro being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature motivated me to buy two of her books. Having finished ‘Too Much Happiness’ I am still not much of a fan of short stories but that doesn’t mean I am not impressed by Munro’s literary skill. She is a superb writer and I think it is tragic that she has only published one novel. The story at the end of the book from which has been taken its title is a biography of Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician, a genius, who struggled to be accepted among the exclusionary male academia of the late 19th century. It occupies 56 pages which is much longer than most short stories. Her life was marked by her fervent passion for mathematics, but she also married and became a mother and, having later becoming a widow, she was awakened to amour with a fellow academic who probably didn’t deserve her devotion. The story is mainly told in the ‘present’ time leading up to Sophia’s death, with many flashbacks from her earlier life.
Most of the stories are very agreeable but after finishing the book (unlike after having finishing a novel) it is difficult to remember what it was about, except for the lengthy last story. This is a good book for anyone who doesn’t have much time to read but it can also be enjoyed by novel-enthusiasts who may want a break from complicated plots and extravagant characterizations.
Most recent customer reviews
Looking at events of the second world from children's point of view was very interesting. Well written.Published 3 months ago by Gina Benvie
The item was delivered in good time, at a good price and is of a quality recording befitting a magnificent storyteller.Published 9 months ago by MJ McDonald
I am using this book to teach English. My students are Spanish speaking and have read little English fiction. Read morePublished 23 months ago by Amazon Customer
I did not receive my purchase and was very disappointed.......I don't think it was sent out as they are saying it was probably lost in the mail, which has never happened... Read morePublished on Dec 1 2013 by Marjorie
When I picked up this collection of ten short stories by Alice Munro, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Read morePublished on Nov. 3 2011 by Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Yes, I know Alice Munro is one of the most successful story-tellers in Canada and, yes, I know she is extremely talented and profound. Read morePublished on May 30 2011 by Reader Writer Runner
I was captivated by all of the stories in this collection. My one complaint is with the title story, which is actually a novella based on the life of Russian matthematician and... Read morePublished on Nov. 10 2010 by Gordon Neufeld
While Alice Munro is Canadian, she is also universal in her themes and subjects.
"Free Radicals" is shocking in the insidious way we are told how the heroine "got rid... Read more