A New Collection, Well-Furnished With Munro's Best

Nov 13, 2014
Originally published on November 14, 2014 12:20 pm

The citation for Alice Munro's 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature calls her "the master of the contemporary short story" and praises her ability to "say more in thirty words than an ordinary novel is capable of in three hundred."

Munro distills into one story the sweep of a lifetime, with all its sorrows, disappointments and glories. Her work spans the 20th century, but her focus is on ordinary people (mostly in Canada) whose responses to love, lust, seeking community and facing tragedy range from magisterial to frail to vindictive.

This new collection includes 24 of her most celebrated stories, beginning with "The Love of a Good Woman," which opens with an evocative description of a small-town museum. One exhibit is a box of instruments that belonged to D.M. Willens, an optometrist who has drowned. Munro flashes back to the three boys, bent on swimming, who discover Willens' car in the river.

Headed downtown to report their find the next day, they pass Mrs. Willens working in her yard. Unaware that her husband is dead, she cuts them blooming branches of forsythia. "What they knew, what they had seen, seemed actually to be pushed back, to be defeated, by her not knowing it," Munro writes. In the next section of the story, Munro introduces Enid, who is nursing a young woman named Mrs. Quinn in the final stages of kidney failure. Before the story's end, the optometrist's box is the centerpiece of a conundrum that puts Enid at the crossroads between love and death.

In the title story, an aspiring young writer visits a career woman named Alfrida, a family friend, in the city. Alfrida's apartment is cramped. " 'I know I've got far too much stuff in here,' " she said. " 'But it's my parents' stuff. It's family furnishings, and I couldn't let them go.' " The narrator stops for coffee in a cafe with a ballgame playing on the radio, and ponders her vocation. "I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida ... but of the work I wanted to do ... The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation ... this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be." It's an extraordinary description of the moment when a writer's life begins.

The final stories in this collection — "The Eye," which begins with the "ominous" birth of a baby brother, and "Dear Life," which ends with the death of a classmate's mother, a prostitute — are fictions Munro has called "not quite stories," rare clues to the origins of her work. "I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life," she has written.

Generations to come will relish (and study) Family Furnishings for clues to the fine craft and mysterious wizardry that make Munro's stories work. It's a fitting companion to her Selected Stories (1968-1994) — a superb introduction for those new to her work, and a reminder to longtime fans that Munro is a writer to be cherished.

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