Long known as a master of the short story, Alice Munro continues to live up to her prize-winning reputation in her latest collection, Runaway. It consists of eight stories with single-word titles, such as “Passion” and “Silence,” suggesting a series of philosophical meditations. Yet abstract treatises, these are not. As she herself once admitted, Munro is not an intellectual novelist; particularity is her strong point. All the same, somehow each story speaks with a far-reaching wisdom belied by its unique details.
Munro’s heroines (heroes are markedly absent) are not wise themselves. They make rash decisions, change their life’s direction based on chance encounters, stay in bad or mediocre relationships, fail to be ideal mothers and daughters, and don’t always find professional success. They are flawed and therefore quintessentially human. And we still respect them. Carla, of the title story, has a way with animals and a goofy sense of humor, but she has made a poor choice of mate. She swallows her anger and passes up opportunity because her need for a man is greater. Juliet, who features in three of the stories, leaves a Ph.D. to pursue a man she is never unambiguously happy with and has a lovely daughter from whom she becomes estranged. Robin remains single because of assumptions based on a moment of mistaken identity. Munro’s women are full of errors in judgment, yet she refuses to judge them. Would we have done any better? she seems to ask. More importantly, she suggests, there may be no such a thing in life as the right decision, only the decisions we make.
A friend of the recently deceased Carol Shields, who cited her as a model, Munro writes with the same attention to detail that can be found in Shields’ The Stone Diaries, and yet is less focused on domesticity. Munro is adept at portraying psychological states, whether detailing the subtle shift in a male/female encounter from menacing to benign, as in “Runaway,” or the exact moment when a girl decides to give up her reliable fiancé for a car ride with his rakish step-brother, as in “Passion.” In the latter story, the crushed fiancé writes to the heroine, “Just say he made you do it. Just say you didn’t want to go.” True to herself, she writes back, “I did want to go.” Whatever their weaknesses, Munro’s women live by their decisions. Not a bad philosophy.