Alice Munro’s latest collection, Too Much Happiness, opens with a story I’ve already written about (post dated Oct. 2, 2008)–“Dimensions”–a story genius enough to take on the worst possible subject, the murder of small children, and yet manage to be about something else. Many of the stories following that first most remarkable one are similar in that they tackle absolutely wild scenarios–violent criminals appearing at the homes of recent widows, loving children growing up to join incomprehensible cults, nude college girls eating formal dinners with mysterious older men, murder, murder and more murder–but are moving, and relatable, for much more subtle reasons. My only complaint with the first nine stories in this collection is that I had read nearly all of them in the New Yorker before the book actually came out.
The last story in the collection lends its name to the book. It is separate from the rest of the stories in that it is historical fiction, based on the life of the nineteenth century Russian novelist and mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky, the first woman ever to be made a professor in Northern Europe. Munro touches on her professional life but is more concerned with her ill-fated romance with an overbearing, dynamic man named Maxim, her early marriage of convenience, her relationship to her late sister’s troubled family and her association with an older professor and mentor. If that sounds like a lot to be concerned with, it is. What I enjoyed about this story is how it illuminated the struggles of a smart, talented woman during a time period in which a woman’s academic success was viewed as a threat to everything and everyone around her. What I found less compelling was the structure, which relied heavily on flashbacks that were difficult to situate in time and that broke the momentum of the narrative. I also felt that the “truth” of the story held it back from the excellence Munro stories generally achieve–she couldn’t mold the events for maximum interest and effect because they just didn’t happen that way.
I am reminded of an anecdote Amy Hempel once told. After presenting a love story she had written to her editor, her editor said, exuding disappointment: “Oh. You did boys and girls. Why, when you do other things so much better? Remember death?” Now, just like Amy writing about love couldn’t have been bad, Alice Munro writing historical fiction certainly isn’t bad. But, why when she does other things so much better? Remember murder?