Thursday, January 09, 2014

Lives of Girls and Women

my slightly creepy cover...
Lives of Girls and Women / Alice Munro
Markham, ON: Penguin, 1990, c1971.
211 p.

I chose to read this book for a number of reasons: it was published the year I was born & fits in with my Century of Books,
it's the selection for my local One Book One Community effort happening in 2014, and I'd never read it before. Actually, I haven't really read any Alice Munro before, apart from a single story here or there.

I'm going to disappoint a lot of people when I say that I didn't like this book. It just wasn't for me. Munro is a fine writer -- obviously, and as the Nobel Committee agreed this year. She has a fearless, sharp eye, one which gets under the social masks and reveals the inner lives of her characters. Even the bits that aren't always pleasant. And her writing seems effortless; it carries you along in the narrative, simply constructed in a way that makes you realize how good she is. I have no complaint about her wonderful technique.

However. This book was unsettling for me. I read the whole thing over the course of a week, examining the progression of Del Jordan's life in small town Jubilee. Del is our main character, and narrator, and perhaps my feelings about this book are partly because I didn't like Del. As she tells us about her community, she highlights various people -- but I couldn't get a grasp on her own family, she slides over the externals and I never really get a sense of their full existence. Her mother, in particular, was very interesting, but we never get a deep enough look at her. And perhaps that's intentional -- we never see our parents as real people when we're young, and Del is much more concerned about her own experience. I also get the sense, though, that Del is a bit sneaky, a bit self-indulgent. She does things that I got very frustrated reading about.

For example, in the last part of the book, she is about to write her exams in hopes of getting a scholarship to escape Jubilee and make something of herself. But instead she starts a relationship with a local boy, spending her time making out instead of studying, and ends up utterly distracted from her exam -- and no scholarship. This despite the fact that she knows, and admits she knows, that she was never going to settle down with this boyfriend. I suppose that frustrated me, because in a town like Jubilee, with its suffocating norms, with the chance to escape by using your brains -- I can't understand how Del could have let anything get in the way of that.

You can see that Munro's writing got to me, in the sense that I was engaged in the story of Jubilee. However, I found this, overall, to be a dark, depressing read. I found that there was too much intimate detail, that Munro got too deep into personal matters that I didn't really want to read about. The book is a collection of linked stories, and especially in the title story, I was creeped out by the subject matter and probably would have given up on the book if I hadn't been determined to finish it for the reasons I mentioned above. I am not a fan of "Southern Ontario Gothic" and this is a fine example of something that I just don't have any affinity with.

I am glad, though, that I've finally read this Canadian classic, and just wish that I could have enjoyed it more.


8 comments:

  1. I agree 100% with you on this book. I know it's a classic, I know it's well-written, but I seriously disliked it. Not enough to turn me off Munro; I've liked her short stories here and there, but this book really didn't agree with me at all. I think the biggest thing for me was that I didn't quite buy Del's self-sabotage; it seemed almost as though this was the way her character *had* to be to make the story, rather than the story coming out of her character. But I am also prepared to admit that might have just been wishful thinking, and maybe Munro's portrayal is more realistic.

    "Southern Ontario Gothic" isn't my thing, either. I grew up there, and while it's not wonderful, and as I was an outsider it *really* wasn't wonderful, neither is it as sneakily, claustrophobically awful as that genre often portrays it to be. There are good people there too. Perhaps, though, since I live in an age where getting out is possible, my experience and perceptions are different.

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    1. Thank goodness. I agree that Del is a difficult character; I think your comment is a succinct statement of what I was trying to say.

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  2. Maybe it's easier to view Del's decision as self-sabotage from the perspective of being readers decades later. But when one considers just how odd Del was for being as smart as she was, just how judged she was for her bookishness and gestures she made in that direction (I just read an older interview with Graeme Gibson and Alice Munro from shortly after this publication of LoG&W and it seems like the author had some similar experiences, in a community in which reading was simply a waste of time and smarts not necessary to be a good wife) perhaps we can view her "mistake" as social conditioning in disguise? But, then, it's not that simple either. Because there's Del messing about with a boy she likes but already knows isn't "marriage material": quite daring, really. Okay, I think I've talked myself in a circle now!

    Regardless, I enjoyed reading your post!

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    1. I can see what you're saying. But I think it's just the way Del interacts -- it makes me feel that other people only exist for her to observe and write about. I can't quite figure it out yet, but I really didn't like Del very much.

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  3. I'm still traumatised by a Joyce Carol Oates novel that I read back in 2008 (Blonde, the one about Marilyn Monroe), so I understand exactly where you're coming from. I've yet to try Monroe, and I do like gothic stuff, so maybe I'll get along better with her. But then again maybe not. I'm not sure I'm familiar with southern Ontario gothic! lol

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    1. I haven't read much Oates, but I can see that a lot of her themes are dark. This one is just so... bleak, I guess, and humourless, that it just didn't redeem itself for me from its focus on dull misery and boredom.

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  4. I've only read a couple of Munro's stories but sometimes have felt like I didn't quite "get" her. Sorry this one didn't live up to your expectations. For some reason I always hate when that happens with a "classic" - I feel like I missed out on something!

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    1. Just not the book for me, I suppose. I really didn't "get" it.

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Thanks for stopping by ~ I hope you will leave your comments and reflections to let me know what you think!