I got theoretically interested in Alice Munro way back when I was devouring Atwood, simply because she’s also Canadian and often mentioned together with Atwood in critical texts (my reading choices are often random like that). But as she writes almost exclusively short stories, I didn’t really get down to reading her work because I prefer to immerse in a long story of a novel. So when I found out that Lives of Girls and Women bears “a novel” subtitle, I jumped at it – even though I suspected that a writer renown for short stories will not be a master of the novel.
And basically the suspicion proved right in that the book is more a collection of short stories linked by their common protagonist than a novel as such. There is no large plot, just a series of events depicting the narrator’s, Del Jordan’s, growth into a woman. The short story character of the book is particularly evident in where the weight of writing lies: not so much in the plot developments as in the juxtaposition of scenes. Minor in themselves, especially in the first half of the story, events gain new meaning in the light of what follows, like, for instance, when Del’s quest for religion is offset by her realization that no God can save a dog that took liking to killing sheep.
This kind of writing, typical and expected of short stories, is exactly what turned me to novels. They require less intellectual detective work and allow for more emotional response. These days I’m a hurried reader, reading mostly on buses and at breakfast, which makes a hunt for meaning less effective and less gratifying. I still enjoy it but first I need to be hooked by powerful characters and their dramas. If all the excitement is buried under a layer of metaphors and symbols, it pains me to admit it, but I will not enjoy such a book all that much. (Unless it’s really stunning, I guess. I still allow for that.)
Munro’s story suffered from this affliction to me. It has a lot you could write essays about: religion versus biology, coming to terms with the physicality of living, accepting and rejecting female social roles, an individual in a traditional community, human violence versus nature’s violence, and, of course, lives of girls and women in all their aspects. I could go on and on as, in fact, I loved to trace themes like these in books but nowadays I mostly end at enumerating them. While a complex story full of interesting ideas, it falls very, very short for me in that Del is ultimately uninteresting, cold and haphazard in her decisions. Not once did I really care what will happen to her. Indeed the half-hearted analysis (or maybe just observation) of themes and motifs was much more thrilling than Del’s dilemmas.
This book actually fits nicely with my previous read, In Zanesville, in that both take on female adolescence. But while definitely better-written and more profound, Lives of Girls failed to evoke that bitter-sweet sense of growing up that Beard’s story did so well.