Most Canadians will know this collection of stories by Alice Munro by its original title, though many Americans will know it as The Beggar Maid instead. What I hadn't quite understood when I started reading the stories is that this is actually the second novel-in-stories that Munro completed. Lives of Girls and Women also feature one main character, Del, in all the stories. This book is the one that most people talk about as Munro's missing novel. However, Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) features Rose and Flo, her step-mother, in all the stories as well, yet it is not discussed nearly as often as a missing novel, as far as I can tell. This is particularly interesting as two or three of the stories cover a wide timespan. But the main reason I consider this a novel is that some of the middle stories hardly make sense unless you've read the other ones to find out more about Rose's background. There is a lot of background missing in "Wild Swans," for instance, which is actually one of the more disturbing stories of the bunch (even if you do have Rose's backstory). Thus, I think I will have to review this as a novel, more than a collection of stories, which means SPOILERS AHEAD.
Do You Really Want to Read the SPOILERS?
To return to the sweeping scope of the stories, the opening story "Royal Beatings" lets the reader see Flo as a youngish bride who ultimately ends up as a bitter old lady in a retirement home. The older, wiser version of Rose realizes that Flo acted as she did partly out of ignorance and a general unhappiness on how Rose rejected her as a mother figure and viewed her solely as a step-mother. While it is not clear that Rose ever tried to drive a wedge between her father and Flo, Flo surely saw that as a possibility. Needless to say, even mothers and daughters with firmer biological ties can sometimes have incredibly fraught and difficult relationships. Off the top of my head, I can think of Atwood's Lady Oracle and Barbara Comyn's The Juniper Tree, but I'm pretty sure there are other stories by Munro that fit the bill. After all, there are quite a few novels about conflicts between fathers and son (who don't really want to follow the instructions their father push upon them), and it is just a likely for there to be conflict between the females in the household, even if it is often subtler.
Munro's first two collections have a complicated, but largely positive view of growing up in rural Ontario, though it does seem that Del in Lives of Girls and Women was too attracted to an uneducated country bumpkin and ruined her life chances. Obviously, I am over-simplifying the set-up, but Munro paints a much bleaker view of rural life and its limitations in WDYTYA? I was actually a bit shocked when I came to "Privilege" (the second story) where she is describing the situation in the rural school Rose attends. Munro makes this sound like some Hobbesian nightmare where the teacher turns a blind eye to all the terrors that the older kids inflict on the younger kids -- and the younger kids inflict on each other. It's practically Lord of the Flies set in Hanratty, Ontario.* The relationship between Rose and her step-mother Flo isn't much better, though it does improve after Rose moves away. Playing with time enters this story in a subtle way. Much of "Privilege" focuses on how Rose finds herself in awe of one of the older girls in school and essentially wants to be in her entourage. She even steals candy from Flo's store to suck up to this older girl, who rejects this puppy love. Flo mocks Rose and doesn't understand why she is making such a big deal about the older girl. At the end of the story, Rose reflects back and can't really understand either, though she sort of understands that she was looking for glamourized female role models, since she was not getting encouragement at home. Munro and Atwood (particularly in Cat's Eye) are quite good on showing how our memories of the past change over time and we may downplay things (or forget/repress events) that were once incredibly important to us as children.
The title story closes the book. Again, we are treated to a somewhat disturbing story about small town life, centered around Milton Homer, a strange man that Rose knew (but knew enough to largely steer clear of while she was a girl). Of all the fairly wild young men in the village, he is particularly disturbed, as he disrupts parades and even baptisms. Eventually he ends up in an old folks' home, where Flo is staying, as there is apparently nowhere else to institutionalize him. The story is actually fairly complex in that in thinking about Milton Homer brings up related thoughts about going to high school (not many of the children in Hanratty did that) and how her teacher was actually one of Milton Homer's aunts. It must have been an endless disappointment to her and her sister as they tried unsuccessfully to keep him in check. Nonetheless, in her own classroom, butter would hardly melt in her mouth. What is particularly pathetic is the way she punishes Rose one day for trying to be better than her station (she has memorized a poem without writing it down). "Who do you think you are?" she asks Rose. On the one hand, at that time, Canadians suffered from tall-poppy syndrome, where anyone who was a bit better than anyone else was cut down to size, so the teacher could simply be trying to prepare Rose for this world, but Munro really seems to be indicating that the teacher is indignant that Rose is showing off a bit. One of her classmates did an impressive impersonation of Milton Homer (though apparently was never caught by the teacher), and this is the second prong of the story, as Rose catches up with this fellow student on one of her rare returns to Hanratty to visit Flo. His life was not a particularly happy one. While Hanratty was definitely tamed after WWII (as suburban sprawl from Toronto eventually raised the "tone" of the place), it still seems to be a pretty dead-end location, and clearly Rose was better off leaving. Still, it is a pretty downbeat story to end on.
I found the stories set in Rose's early days in Hanratty to be pretty dark, though things improve a bit as she goes to high school, aside from occasionally running afoul of the teacher, as in the title story, or getting mocked for putting on airs as in "Half a Grapefruit." The stories of Rose as an adult are unsatisfying (to me) for different reasons, which I will get to shortly.
The one story that the book sort of hinges upon is quite unsettling in a different way. I think I had previously read "Wild Swans" in an anthology, since the story seems quite familiar. Rose is going on a short visit to Toronto for the first time on her own. It isn't entirely clear how old she is, but probably she is a junior or senior in high school. She has won an essay contest that comes with a cash prize, and therefore she can go on this trip to bring back some special goods for Flo that you can't find outside "the city." (One of the more interesting things about Flo is that she worked in
Toronto near Union Station for a short time but apparently wanted to
return to small village life.) Rose is going to stay with one of her father's relatives (he had actually passed away several years before, making life at home even more difficult for Rose). Flo warns Rose in a somewhat serious manner to watch out for "white slavers" who will force her into prostitution, and Rose is somewhat relieved when an older minister sits beside her on the train. After a short discussion about her plans and an admonition to keep an eye on the landscape to see if any wild swans are about, he falls asleep with his newspaper covering his lap and part of Rose's as well. She feels fingers on her thigh and thinks she must be imagining things, but she doesn't move away either or speak up. I thought in the version I read before Munro never makes it clear if it is only her imagination or not, but maybe I am misremembering. In this version, Rose tells herself she will not open her legs and then she does, and he fingers her for miles while she bites her tongue and tries to keep her breathing in check. Granted Rose is quite inexperienced in the ways of sexual congress and perhaps it was indeed less than it seemed, though under any circumstances, this is pretty bad. She doesn't say anything partly because she can't believe it is happening, but she is quite curious about sex. She has already fantasized about having sex (and being dominated -- pounded in her own words) by her high school French teacher, and is somewhat primed to accept sexual advances. I can certainly understand why people have trouble with this story, since it sort of validates Humbert Humbert, i.e. the young girl really was asking for it. (Curiously one of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues features a similar pedophile with the same kind of self-justification.) At any rate, budding female sexuality is something not handled all that well in fiction, at least in part because so many critics are fundamentally anti-sex (and authors just shy away from the criticism they know they will receive). I did find this article focused on the growing sexual awareness of Rose to be worth reading.
If WDYTYA had basically stopped at Rose's high school years or even her early college career (so apparently she does better for herself than Del ever did), it would be a difficult and fairly dark book, but still one for which I had a reasonably high regard. However, I don't know if it is simply the spirit of the times (mid 70s) or Munro working out her anger at how her marriage fell apart, but I really don't like the adult Rose and her often terrible choices.
She has a somewhat unusual relationship with a graduate student, Patrick. In "The Beggar Maid," Rose gets engaged, breaks it off, then asks him to take her back. It isn't clear why, even to her, other than she seems to have a sense that she is so far removed from his social sphere that it will never work. And this is before she realizes just how rich his family is, which she learns when they move to British Columbia to be near them. No one from home can believe that she landed such a rich husband, and Flo in particular is baffled. They see it the same as if she won the lottery, and Rose herself feels a bit like a beggar maid in a fairy tale, but she is also wise enough (at some level) to realize that the happy ending in these stories is so unlikely. To fit in, she must transform herself and live the way her rich relations feel is correct, even though it doesn't feel right to her. It doesn't help that Patrick reconciles with his father and starts working in the family business and promptly becomes quite conservative. (Above all, this irks me as I find it a bit slanderous against her real-life husband, Jim Munro, who ran an independent bookstore in Victoria.)
Rose doesn't know what she wants, but she doesn't want this, and eventually she separates from her husband. She has an affair (a very unsatisfactory one that is hardly ever consummated) with a friend's husband. I wouldn't judge her so harshly, but in "Mischief" and in "Providence" she can't find a baby sitter, and ends up dragging her daughter, Anna, along with her as she tries to engage in extramarital sex. In one of these stories, I believe it is "Providence," Anna is getting quite ill, but Rose still is focused on her own needs and not at all upon her daughter. I basically hated her at that point, and wasn't much interested in the remaining stories. It seems best all the way around when Anna moves back in with her father and step-mother, who presumably is not as terrible to her as Flo was to Rose. In "Simon's Luck," we see Rose having success in an unlikely career as an actress, first on the radio and then the television. She finally seems to have found a potential romantic partner, and then he dies on her. "Spelling" mostly focuses on Rose coming in for a visit to Flo and being somewhat overwhelmed by the sorry lives that the elderly are leading in the old folks' home. (Maybe I am just projecting a bit, but I found this a very depressing story with not much of a point other than growing old is horrible.)
I find it hard to rate the book as a whole. It was fairly dark in many places, and Rose disappointed me in many ways when we saw the adult she turned into. I thought it was a bit glib to try to blame this all on her difficult childhood or even excuse her bad behaviour (particularly in how poorly she cared for Anna), which occasionally I felt Munro was doing. Apparently there are some nuggets of wisdom to be gained along the way as one marches to the grave, but it doesn't amount to all that much in the end. The final two stories in the book really remind me a lot of Beckett in their overall bleakness. I'm not sure everyone else would agree, but I found them a real downer, particularly in the way they close out the book. In short, it is a book worth reading, but not if one is looking for mere diversion or distraction from life's worries...
* The stories are set in small town Ontario - Hanratty, which is actually Wingham, Ontario. A place small enough that everyone knows everyone, and many people were very, very unhappy that Alice Munro would write about their darkest secrets. Actually reading the article is interesting, as the journalist is more than a little surprised that the family that had a dark secret exposed (a baby accidentally scalded to death when an older sister was left in charge) doesn't feel that having their baby immortalized in print should somehow take the pain away. I'm not saying that there aren't some people who would feel that way, but it is a very small and probably overly intellectual clique that finds that much solace in literature. Far more people would feel that this is an unwelcome and unseemly intrusion on their misery.