“The Love of a Good Woman: Stories” by Alice Munro was the Wall Street Journal Book Club pick a few months ago. I fell a little behind with the book before this, so I started it late and only just recently finished it. I have to say that this book was a disappointment. I do not tend to gravitate towards short stories, but as most of the Wall Street Journal book club books have been excellent I did not let that stop me from picking up “The Love of a Good Woman” with high hopes.
I was impressed with Alice Munro’s writing style. Her words quickly captivated me. “So they would jump into the water and feel the cold hit them like ice daggers. Ice daggers shooting up behind their eyes and jabbing the tops of their skulls from the inside. Then they would move their arms and legs a few times and haul themselves out, quaking and letting their teeth rattle; they would push their numb limbs into their clothes and feel the painful recapture of their bodies by their startled blood and the relief of making their brag true.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 5). Munro’s writing illustrated everything so well. I expected to continue to enjoy the book with each page I turned.
The first short story starts out with several boys discovering a body in a lake. The story is narrated in third person but follows each boy separately, while simultaneously detailing each boy’s background. I thought this was very well written and it was certainly interesting. Munro’s observations about many different aspects were relatable and intriguing at the same time. “You can never say, Nobody could make that up. Look how elaborate dreams are, layer over layer in them, so that the part you can remember and put into words is just the bit you can scratch off the top.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 74). With this quote she touches on dreams. At this point I was still enjoying her writing, but I was finding the stories a little hard to follow.
Perhaps it might have been better had I read this book in one sitting, but I spread it out and that led me to be really confused. Part of the issue was that some of the stories seemed related while others did not. Then there were also so many characters that I had trouble keeping track of them. In addition, quite a few of those characters had similar names, which just made it even harder to keep track of what was going on. I liked this quote for what it said, but it is also a great example of how confusing Munro’s writing can be. I had to read this part a few times to figure out what exactly she was talking about. “The sex Kath had with Kent was eager and strenuous, but at the same time reticent. They had not seduced each other but more or less stumbled into intimacy, or what they believed to be intimacy, and stayed there. If there is only to be the one partner in your life nothing has to be made special – it already is so. They had looked at each other naked, but at those times they had not except by chance looked into each other’s eyes.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 104). This also gives the example of there being two characters with similar names that happen to be a couple. Kath and Kent? How are readers supposed to keep track of everyone?
Normally part of what makes a book so enjoyable for me is when I find myself relating to the character or characters. I found this near impossible with the seemingly numerous characters. This one passage I enjoyed because the character was an avid reader just like myself. “Of course, I had less time for reading now, and sometimes I would hold a book in my hand for a moment, in my work at the desk – I would hold a book in my hand as an object, not as a vessel I had to drain immediately – and I would have a flicker of fear, as in a dream when you find yourself in the wrong building or have forgotten the time for the exam and understand that this is only the tip of some shadowy cataclysm or lifelong mistake.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 138). I thought this was a powerful passage, but I couldn’t tell you the name of the character that said it.
There were many passages throughout “The Love of a Good Woman” where I had the same reaction. I found the words that Alice Munro wrote to be inspiring and yet I had such a difficult time keeping track of the characters that I couldn’t really enjoy the book. This was yet another quote that I really enjoyed but I’m not sure who said it. “It was the truth, that there were people whom you positively ached to please. Derek was one of them. If you failed with such people they would put you into a category in their minds where they could keep you and have contempt for you forever.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 236). This was another quote that I really enjoyed on it’s own. Since it was so late in the book, I do remember which character said it and why, but that doesn’t change the fact that beyond knowing the short story that she was involved in, I don’t know how she relates at all to the other stories in this book. “Everybody thought she was just the same except for her skin. Nobody knew how she had changed, and how natural it seemed to her to be separate and polite and adroitly fending for herself. Nobody knew the sober, victorious feeling she had sometimes, when she knew how much she was on her own.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 253). This quote was powerful.
Would I recommend this book? No, I would not recommend this book to anyone. I thought that Alice Munro’s writing was excellent, but the storyline was so difficult to follow that whatever illusions I had when I started the book about enjoying it, they were quickly dissipated. I read a lot of books, so it is fair to say when I find the story hard to follow, that it is hard to follow. I doubt that I would pick up anything else that Alice Munro has written.