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A Trip Through Munro Territory

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage Delights

In Alice Munro's tenth book, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Munro fans are not exactly entering new territory. We recognize the small town on the border of a lake, the awkward furniture and the tidy porches; we recognize the schoolteachers, the women with bad teeth and the men with old-school courtesy. Some critics have faulted Munro -- as they have faulted Eudora Welty -- for retreading over the same ground in rural southwestern Ontario and the cities of Vancouver and Toronto. But what makes Munro a great writer -- and her recent book a success -- is her ability to take us to places of discovery in a landscape we thought we already knew.

Like Flannery O'Connor's South, Munro territory is a workaday, fully inhabited neighborhood, which nonetheless has a potential for mystery. In a patch of nettles by the golf course or a dim entryway packed with coats, school bags and hockey sticks, characters surprise even themselves with the risks they take and the honesty with which they perceive their circumstances.

Because Munro actually sympathizes with her characters -- unlike, say, Jonathan Franzen, who more often pities them -- she gives us more than typecast actors and tired scenarios. The best stories in the collection introduce us to contradictory people who are pathetic, brave, practical, dreamy, cruel and tender -- women like Alfrida in "Family Furnishings," who writes the "Flora Simpson Housewives' Page" in the city newspaper, but cannot establish square domestic bliss for herself, and the story's narrator, who will not introduce her friends to Alfrida, but will fashion Alfrida's story for her own fiction.

Even though Munro begins her stories in the safe, almost Hallmark-card surroundings of well-scrubbed kitchens or high-school tennis courts, no one can get complacent. Everything here turns on the thinnest of dimes, as in the game of Munro's book title where a girl's relationship with a boy -- hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, or marriage -- is determined by the number of unduplicated letters in their names. The chancy nature of happiness means that those who want to be happy have to seize the moments when they come along, even if, like Johanna, they act on mistaken assumptions.

For missed opportunities are never neutral. As Munro explains in "Post and Beam," "it was more than concern ... it was horror, to think of the way things could be lost, could not happen, through some casual absence or chance." Absence leads to real consequences in Munro's stories, as in "Nettles," where the time the narrator and Mike McCallum spend apart means that long-lost loves will remain lost even if they manage to find each other again.

Munro does not miss anything with her keen eye for who gets turkey and who gets chicken salad with pimiento-studded molded rice, and her finely tuned ear for ordinary speech. Her triumph is to make us realize how important it all is.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
By Alice Munro
Knopf; ISBN: 0375413006
Hardcover -- 320 pages, November 2001

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