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Short stories: the Juliet stories by Alice Munro

Runaway by Alice Munro | edge of evening

series of posts highlighting the very best of my short story reading. 2. ‘’Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’ by Alice Munro published in her 2004 collection Runaway.

Munro’s stories have always felt exceptionally capacious; they have the scope of novels, though without any awkward sense of speeding up or boiling down. They are truly stories, and when they are linked, as Juliet’s stories are, they create not a simulacrum of a novel but a series of resonating episodes, still subject to the discipline and selectivity of the short-story form. It’s almost impossible to describe their unforced exactness, their unrushed economy.Alan Hollinghurst on Alice Munro, The Guardian, 5 February 2005

I loved these three stories so much when I first read them, nine or ten years ago, that I was almost afraid to return to them. There was an image that stayed with me, strange when I first encountered it, and then so familiar: a woman holding a baby on one hip, while mashing a hard-boiled egg with her other hand. Something I hadn’t experienced, captured and then returned to me with a retrospective echo of recognition when I too spent my hours cooking one handed.

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Three stories about one woman are at the heart of Alice Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway. We meet Juliet first as a young woman, twenty-one, teaching for a year, taking a cross-country train journey that will, by chance, lead to her meeting her future partner. In the second story, Juliet is a young mother returning to the town she grew up in to visit her parents — her teacher-father and ailing mother. And in the final story, which covers a longer time span than the others, Juliet’s daughter, Penelope, is grown, Juliet is alone and facing a future without solace.

B’s grandparents often tell stories about their friends which end with sentences of such compression that a life’s arc is recounted in a few seconds. An anecdote is recalled in vivid detail & then something makes me ask when these events happened, or what happened next, and the answer will be that the first wife died and then of course there was his illness, and the children — sitting under the table kicking one another just a moment ago — will turn out to be adults with teenage children of their own. It’s a feeling I love, this dizzy telescoping of time, and it’s an effect that often makes me think of Alice Munro.

She’s able to take just a little over 100 pages to delineate so much of Juliet’s life. How well she traces the shifting relationships between Juliet and her parents, her lover, her daughter and her friend, Christa, through the stories. (And, oh Christa! She’s barely there, yet I feel I know her. And her death, one devastating paragraph, thus: “Christa grew thinner and moodier. Quite suddenly, one January, she died.”)

On my mind as I reread, and one of these shifting relationships, is Juliet’s first love: classics. In the first story, she is taking a break from her PhD to teach, but by the story’s conclusion it’s clear that she won’t go back to her thesis,

This is what happens. You put it away for a little while, and now and again you look in the closet for something else and you remember, and you think soon. Then it becomes something that is just there, in the closet, and other things get crowded in front of it and on top of it and finally you don’t think about it at all.

The thing that was your bright treasure. You don’t think about it. A loss you could not contemplate at one time, and now it becomes something you can barely remember.

This is what happens. 

from ‘Chance’ by Alice Munro

In ‘Soon’ Juliet is still planning to return to her thesis but for now it is ‘just a dream’. But then, in ‘Silence’ when the qualities we have come to admire in Juliet — her intelligence, her rationality and her willingness to go against the grain of her time — are partly responsible for her estrangement from her daughter, we find that she has returned to the ‘bright treasure’ of her intellectual life, setting aside her PhD thesis and continuing her ‘investigations’ into the ancient Greeks for love alone.

With this, as with everything in these three perfect stories, Alice Munro seems to capture so much of the circling ebb and flow of our lives and interests. That first love, set aside for human love and motherhood, returned to as solace and passion both.

5 Comments

  1. “The dizzy telescoping of time” – how succinctly you’ve nailed it. I too read this collection when it first came out, and I remember discussing these stories with my mother, also a Penelope. Her judgment: “Alice is getting crueller in her old age.” A few years after she died, I re-read “Silence” and thought a lot about the disjunction in the story with the mythical Penelope, who is steadfast, static, and above all, findable.

    On a lighter note, my mother was once taking the Manitoulin Island ferry and made conversation with a family from Clinton, where Munro lives. “Who?” the husband asked, and the wife hit him with her purse in deep embarrassment. She confirmed that she often saw Munro grocery shopping, and that she always contributed a pie to town functions when asked. “Imagine that,” my mother marvelled, recounting this. “Just like a regular person.”

    • Oh, Kate! This is such a wonderful story — I love it! And, yes, I suppose your mother was right about her getting crueler, but it seems true to life. I’m so interested in your comment about the mythical Penelope — I haven’t thought hard enough about that, & of course the stories make clear how important the Greek myths are to Juliet & therefore to them. Thanks so much for the vision of Munro baking pies & for giving me more to think about next time I reread these stories.

  2. They are perfect stories, aren’t they? So great to have your attention paid to them, for us, to us! Thank you.

  3. anna says

    It is not Alice who is cruel. Life has this cruelty in store, and Alice lays it bare with spare, uncanny strokes. This ability to lay bare mercilessly the root of the pain is so overwhelming that it feels cruel. Yet it is only true. The uncompromising truth of Munro’s fiction is so powerful it has a deep resonance in our minds. That is the only way I can explain why I was moved to tears by “Silence” almost twenty years ago and have since been haunted by it for no apparent reason. In fact, a similar thing is happening to me now with my own daughter, and I cannot help thinking of Munro – how uncanny, that foreshadowing! – yet I could not have known so consciously back then, when I was first reading her and my daughter was still a baby.

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