Smart Girls (Alice Munro Review)

I finished this book this weekend:

It’s a cycle of stories about Del Jordan, a smartypants in rural Ontario in the 40s and 50s, trying to figure out how to grow up by closely observing the women in her life. The book’s title is a convenient summary of Munro’s entire oeuvre. However, this book feels younger than her later work in some surprising ways.

I love Alice Munro. I love rich stories about smart girls. I love feminism. I loved this book. But it surprised me.

Now, I am more familiar with Munro’s later work, so my reading experience was filtered by a nearly constant comparison to this book, which was published way back in 1971.

More ostensibly a product of that era’s fervent feminism than her later work, this book is just so much more obvious than what I’m used to from her.

For example, this eponymous passage:

My mother spoke to me in her grave, hopeful, lecturing voice

“There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connection with men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals… I hope you will—use your brains… Once you make that mistake, of being—distracted, over a man, your life will never be your own. You will get the burden, a woman always does.”

“There is birth control nowadays,” I reminded her, and she looked at me startled, though it was she herself who had publicly embarrassed our family [by writing pro-birth control letters to the local paper].

“That is not enough, though of course it is a great boon… It is self-respect I am really speaking of. Self-respect.”

Munro’s later work is a remarkably poignant illustration of these conflicts. Generational, emotional, and sexual conflicts. But later in her writing life, she never says it outright like this. This is pure 70s feminism. I love it. But reading it in 2012 feels like a little trip back in time. It also feels clumsier and shallower than her later work. (But frankly, her later work sets a bar so freakin’ high that something clumsier would still display so much more artistry than us yokels can hope for.)

Similarly, this book’s frank depiction of sex—and the protagonist narrator’s unabashed love of sex, her philosophical embrace of pleasure as a way to reject (or revise) her mother’s chaste feminism—blew my mind with its frankness. I loved it. But spoiler alert: Del got distracted. She got distracted big time.

And as a smart girl whose academic ambitions were thwarted tempered by the charm of LIFE, I was very sad for Del. I wanted her to get that scholarship. I didn’t want her to give up her grades for the dude. Her choices were very much not the ones I would have made, and I was as frustrated by her as her mother. Which made me question my own beliefs about what smart girls should do with themselves. And what mothers should do. And how we should best negotiate the choices available to us.

So like other 70s feminist works I have loved, this book has a surfaceness—a lack of tragic aporia, or Hemingway icebergs, or any of the other techniques used to keep themes suitably subtle—that never lacks complexity. The depth in this work comes primarily from its astute portrayal of fascinating characters who make dumb decisions and cope with frustrating situations. The tragedy of the everyday, and all that. So when there’s an actual bona-fide sex scene, or a completely straightforward, unabashed statement about the Lives of Girls and Women, it doesn’t reduce the complex emotional power of the work.

So I think that its slightly shallower, clumsier feel is more about my preconceptions about what literature should be. And it’s about why I love Munro’s later work so intensely. It has a depth, subtlety and focus on the tragic epiphany that accords with Great Literature. Despite what our buddy Franzen wrote about her over here (which is also true).

This book is shallower but no lighter than her later work, which Franzen describes worshipfully in terms of “rhetorical restraint” and increased ambition. But to say that it’s less mature, as I did above, and as I still kinda feel, reveals more about my own prejudices about Great Literature than about the book itself.

I’m focusing on my own reception in this review because I cannot talk much more about the book directly without a spoiler fest. (Franzen made the same choice in that review of Runaway! Hah!)

So I’ll close with this proposal:

If you find the point in Franzen’s review of Munro and Runaway, linked above, in which he uses Munro’s stunning story to describe one of his books (Munro’s work is about his career!), you get an award. The award is to choose one blog topic for me to write about. Hah! A bit narcissistic, sure, but there’s not much more I can offer you. You can have fun by making me blog about sports or something. I’d say something like, um, Cleats! Turf! Money!

There’s also the implicit award of continuing the Franzen-bashing that lots of people love to do.

Love letters to Alice Munro are also welcome.

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One thought on “Smart Girls (Alice Munro Review)

  1. […] While I feel that NW is a better book than those earlier ones, I suspect this feeling comes from my internalizing the canon: weightiness is “better” than lightness. Drama is “better” than jokes. […]

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