Tuesday, June 13, 2006

16. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

by Alice Munro

I’m all moved into my new apartment now. The books are unpacked, though not in any order because my last bookshelf, which I’m painting, has yet to be reassembled. I was realizing this time around that my books were the first things to be packed and the first things to be unpacked. It was like they were a major hurdle in the moving process, like, “Whew! Once these babies are packed I’m halfway there!” And, “If I can just get the books unpacked tonight, I’ll be golden.” It’s not like I even have that many books. I only filled up ten boxes which, from the way some of you describe your personal libraries, is downright piddly. But it was nice picking up each one, remembering reading it or remembering how excited I was when I bought it. For some of them it was making the tough decision to give it away. And it was nice, on the other end of the moving, placing them in their new, if not completely organized homes, especially when part of that home includes the, ahem, built-ins flanking my [non-functional] fireplace. I like my new apartment.

It was during this process that I finally settled on a book to read. Doppleganger pointed out how horrible it is not knowing what or when you’re going to read next and, truly, it is. For someone who identifies herself as a “reader” to not be reading is almost terrifying. It’s like you’re flapping out there in the wind with nothing to grab onto. Jen commented that reading seems to go in cycles so, by that theory, reading slumps are just the opposite of those really high-intensity reading periods where you feel like you must read everything you can get your hands on. And I’ll certainly buy that, but why does it feel so bad when we’re at the other end of the pendulum? Why did it feel like an act against nature to not carry a book everywhere I went?

But back to the point at hand – it was during the process of packing the books away in their boxes that I came across the perfect one to read. I’ve read Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage before and, in fact, this was my introduction to Alice Munro, but when Doppleganger raved about it during her review of Runaway, a book that I also own but have yet to read, I realized that I remembered almost nothing about it. She recalled being blown away by some of the stories in here and I had no idea what she was talking about. That proved to be the perfect choice of books because, although I remembered nothing about the stories inside clearly I liked them enough to explore the author’s other works, and thus I was guaranteed to like it. And if it was indeed too early for me to come out of my slump, there would be no guilt over quitting the book early. It was, after all, a reread.

I read small sections of the book before the move, but after I’d had a few days to settle into my new digs, I read almost all of the remainder in one go. Which is to say, damn, this book is good. I tend to have a problem admitting that I like some things that are stereotypically feminine and part of me hates that Munro’s writings are, definitely, geared toward the female population. But when the writing is so pointed and all of the words are used to their fullest extent, making the stories intense and consuming, I start to be okay with the whole feminine thing.

There is an element of sadness running through these stories that I absolutely love. I love that Munro can take the memory of a one-day affair or young girls running off with older men and stray from the florid sentimentality with which most female writers would imbue them, instead giving them a gravity that makes them real. The title story follows a woman on the verge of spinsterhood who, as the butt of a teenager’s joke, actually ends up meeting the man she marries. The meeting isn’t cute, as she stumbles upon her future husband while he’s in a bought of bronchitis, and the woman isn’t shyly self-deprecating, blaming her man troubles on the five pounds she can never seem to lose. It’s shocking to find out that the two do end up together and you have to wonder what kind of determination this woman had to make it work out to her expectations.

In fact, several of the stories deal with unhappy or unlikely marriages. Both “Post and Beam” and “What Is Remembered” focus on women who realize their marriages aren’t as wonderful as they should be, but instead of tucking tail and running, they stick through their plights. It isn’t with a sense of “wifely duty,” either, because that would surely make me chuck this book against the wall, but rather with a sense of responsibility for the choices they made in their lives. There’s something about that that’s very grown-up and mature…this definitely isn’t chick lit.

I think my favorite story was “Comfort,” which centers on a woman whose ALS-suffering husband has just committed suicide. She walks in on the body and instead of falling apart, calmly calls the proper authorities and then proceeds to search for his final note. The story tells of their marriage, both strong personalities who did battle in the evolution/religion debate amongst their friends and in the husband’s job as a teacher. Perhaps it’s this characterization of the two as scientific, logic-minded people that prevents the story from devolving into the usual hope of meeting again at the pearly gates, but what’s really poignant about the story is that there’s this woman who must go on after this crushing event has occurred and she realizes, with some amount of shock, that she can go on. You just don’t get that kind of thing in those books with the hot pink spines.

The unfortunate thing is that when you come across a book written with women in mind, it’s far too easy to disregard it. Perhaps that’s because most women-centered books aren’t for real women, but for girls who don’t know any better. Real women know there’s more than finding the man you end up marrying, that when you do find him there is no such thing as the perfect man or the perfect marriage, that in the saddest moments in life there is some happiness and that the same is true in the opposite direction. Real women don’t pick up those hot pink things – they read Alice Munro.*

*How awesome would that be on a button? “Real Women Read Alice Munro.” No, really, I’m serious. Wouldn’t you wear that proudly on your bag? Or “Real Women Read Carol Shields,” or “Charlotte Bronte,” or your favorite woman-author. Someone needs to do that and cut me a deal for supplying the idea. I’m open to offers.


Blogger alice said...

Yay, hooray for coming out of your reading slump. I'm reading "Passionate Nomad" right now, a biography of writer/explorer Freya Stark, and I'm loving her. My button would have to say "Real women read Freya Stark."

5:38 PM  

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