Jingle Bell Rogue…
Too Much Happiness
by Alice Munro
Acclaimed short story writer Alice Munro — winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work, and three-time winner of Canada's Governor General's Award for fiction — is known for her incisively realistic and irony-tinted topics and themes that touch upon lives of girls and women and are often set in rural Ontario. Often pertaining to tensions between independence and domesticity, imagination and obligation, the stories of "the Canadian Chekhov" explore the undercurrents of human relationships through the ordinary events of daily life, in an gracefully unobtrusive prose that remains as adaptable in structure as it is complex in quality and immediate in impact.
"I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way — what happens to somebody — but I want that 'what happens' to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness," she once declared in an interview. "I want the reader to feel something is astonishing — not the 'what happens' but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me."
Readers of the 10 new stories that make up what does it best for Munro in Too Much Happiness should often find the promise of astonishment emerge in carefully honed tales of seemingly effortless craftsmanship and rich, flesh and blood characterization. The dark “Child's Play,” — centered around children's faculty for cruelty, secrecy, and a question posed: "How can you blame a person for the way she was born?" — surrounds two summer camp friends, Marlene and Charlene, who form an alliance against the troubled Verna, whose family used to share Marlene's duplex. Cue the irony, as the story sees nothing in the way of “too much happiness,” in this child’s play, while a stunning confessional about childhood complicity and guilt plays out. " As “Child’s Play” relates to rationalizations we fabricate in order to live with ourselves, so does a story such as "Fiction," concern a relationship between life and storytelling. Here the protagonist finds her own life recast in the stories of her divorced husband's stepdaughter. "How Are We to Live is the book's title," she recounts. "A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book's authority, making the author seem like somebody who is hanging on the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside."
The ambitious title story, on the other hand, is firmly set in 19th-century Europe as Munro takes the reader to meet Sophia Kovalevski, a talented mathematician and novelist who becomes involved with the politics of the era and the consequences of success. We accompany her on a winter journey that takes her from the Riviera, where she visits her lover, to Paris, Germany, and Denmark, where she has a fateful meeting with a local doctor, and finally to Sweden, where she teaches at the only university in Europe willing to employ a female mathematician. We’re also there for the final days of the brilliant Russian who wrote fiction that infuriated her father. "Now you sell your stories, how soon before you will sell yourself?" he rages after a magazine edited by Dostoyevsky publishes her.
It’s the mix of such provocation with the poignancy, falling amidst themes and scenes of pervasive evocation that make Too Much Happiness much too enticing.
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