Friday, June 1, 2018

11th Canadian Challenge - 23rd review - Friend of My Youth

Now that I have gone through Alice Munro's Friend of My Youth, I have exactly hit the halfway mark in terms of her short story collections.  (I am not counting Best of or Selected volumes, only the original volumes.)  It's a nice milestone, having seen some changes in her style and her preoccupations, but knowing that there are quite a few stories left to go (to say nothing of if I decide to read the New Yorker versions, which are often fairly different).

Gentle SPOILERS ahead

The first three stories see Munro trying some different approaches.  In the title story, the narrator talks about a woman that her mother knew, rather than anyone in her own life.  Part of the story hinges upon a different interpretation of how this woman reacted to being jilted twice by the same man, with the narrator's version being twice-removed as it were, since she had no direct experience of meeting this woman, although apparently she had some access to their correspondence, such as it was.  (Her mother wasn't much of a letter-writer.)

"Five Points" is primarily about a woman hearing about her lover's past.  He is eventually forced into making some admissions about his past, which then seems to spell trouble for the relationship.  Again, what interests me the most is the inability to know the truth about someone else's past, since it is all relayed second-hand and the person doing the telling can choose what to relate.

"Meneseteung" goes further back into the past, attempting to reconstruct the life of a female poet from the late 1800s.  The documentation is thin (her published work and snippets of gossip from the Vidette, the local paper).  However, the story pushes on and generates a whole interior life for this poet, bringing her back to life, as it were.

The other stories are on more familiar turf for Munro, mostly about marriages on the rocks due to infidelity or about women who have gotten out of marriages one way or another.  It isn't entirely clear when they are set, though I have the impression most are based in the late 70s or early 80s.  Many of the stories are set in small town Ontario, though there are some departures from this.  "Differently" features a trip to (or rather a return to) Victoria.  "Hold Me Fast" features a Canadian widow traveling to Scotland to see where her husband served out WWII. By the end, she seems to understand why he never wanted to return during peacetime, when it would have been so different.  "Goodness and Mercy" is largely set on a cruise ship, with a mother and daughter travelling to Scotland.  (I wonder if perhaps Munro herself made the trip in the late 80s and was inspired by her travels.)

One thing that is different in these stories, compared to some of the earlier stories, is that Munro seems to be taking a much more Olympian view of infidelity.  Pretty much everyone cheats on (or has cheated on) spouses and partners, perhaps the women even more than the men.   She doesn't go too deeply into the reasons why (maybe it was just something in the water in the 70s), but follows through the consequences, again at a bit of a remove.  There does seem to be less anger expressed towards cheating spouses and more interest in where people ended up after the next turn of fortune's wheel.  There is an exception to this in "Wigtime" where a wife is incredibly bitter about her husband's cheating with the babysitter.  Of course, she doesn't really reflect back that she is his second wife and had been the sweet young thing that broke up his first marriage.

There are a couple of exceptions to this pattern.  In "Hold Me Fast," it isn't entirely clear to me whether the vet and his wife were married when he went overseas or if they married after the war.  In either case, she never felt threatened by his wartime fling, as it was perfectly natural for men facing death to seek a bit of extra comfort over there.

The most atypical of all the stories and thus the most interesting from my perspective is "Pictures of the Ice" where a widowed minister is giving up his position, selling off his worldly goods with the proceeds going to charity and moving to Hawaii to get remarried.  Plenty of gentle ribbing at his moving away, though his adult children are more than a little concerned.  It turns out that he is actually going to move to a remote part of Northern Ontario into a trailer and minister to a tiny community.  Not sure how long he thought he could keep up the deception, but the story ends tragically anyway.  By the end of the story, the minister comes across as one of those holy fools that aren't quite cut out for this world, like Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

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