My Best Stories by Alice Munro, Penguin, 2006.
As the title indicates, this book is a collection of seventeen short stories, chosen by Munro herself, as the best of her career. Placed in the order with which they were written, they are an excellent representation of a well-respected literary figure.
One thing that is striking about all of the stories contained is the similarity of their focus. They are not outlandish tales with dramatic plot lines. All of these pieces are about relationships. Many are about the negotiations that take place between family members. Several of the stories look at couples where the woman is poor and the man is considerably more wealthy and how this effects the dynamic between them. Most of the characters depicted have been in a relationship that has fallen apart, in fact it is at times difficult to find a relationship within this collection that has not been separated by divorce or death. This is not to say that the writing is predictable or repetitive. Instead it feels like a realistic depiction of a common reality.
Another aspect of relationships that came up in many of the pieces, particularly the early ones, is the fragility of love. Both The Beggar Maid and Miles City, Montana featured couples that suddenly looked at each other and thought 'I don't like who you are'. In those moments they instantly saw all of their loved one's faults. And then these feelings of animosity left as suddenly as they arrived and the couples were able to laugh it off, until these faults eventually drove them apart. These stories were truthful about emotions that likely arise more often than people would like to admit.
One of Munro's greatest strengths is character description. With a few words she is able to create a full sense of a person, that the reader can picture. This is not because she is falling back on stereotypical, known, standard characters, but is due to her skilled use of language. Somehow her short descriptions can create a full and immediate understanding. The critically acclaimed The Beggar Maid is a particularly strong example of Munro's ability to give a brilliant profile of a relationship where the reader gets a great sense of each of the characters. You know what each of their motivations are and they have a strong presence that transcends the page.
One criticism that arises in more than one instance, is the lack of a satisfying ending. Many of the stories in this collection seem to just end abruptly, leaving a sense that they are unfinished. Much stronger are the beginnings of these stories, that grip the reader immediately. Perhaps the best example of this is Miles City, Montana with "my father came across the field, carrying the body of the boy who had been drowned." A great first line thrusts the reader into a situation and piques their interest. At this, Munro is a master.
These stories to not follow the rules. Munro plays with time and will tell a story from the viewpoint of many different characters. They contain a depth not normally seen in stories of this length. Wilderness Station plays with perspective through the use of letters. Different views are added and are wound together until a complete version of an event eventually emerges. This also occurs in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. The story is mainly told from the perspective of the main character, but it interwoven with segments from the view of the surrounding characters. This provides a full picture and shows how different one story can become, depending on who within it is doing the telling.
Munro is a skilled storyteller and after reading this collection it would be hard to argue with the New York Times Book Review's bold statement that "Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now writing in North America."