Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What is amazing is how much Munro can make out of so little, the lives of observant but unexceptional people, most of them in and around London, Ontario, in the 1990s or 2010s, who perhaps once in their lives have experienced an exceptional event. Within this restricted fictional territory, the author finds innumerable variations.
After the first few stories I was hoping for a change of scenery and skipped to the last, and title, story of the collection, "Too Much Happiness," and was surprised by something quite different. Here the protagonist is an entirely exceptional person and so far from contemporary Canada she probably could not even imagine the Ontario forests and suburbs. The Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) was the first woman to earn a doctorate in a European university at a time when women weren't admitted even to sudy in universities (summa cum laude, University of Göttingen, 1874). Kovalevskaya's extraordinary triumphs and disappointments, including difficult romance with another Russian intellectual exile, all really occurred. The fictional imagination is in making us feel as though we are she, living all these frustrations and sometimes wild hopes, until the fatal "too much happiness."
This is not the only wonderful story in the collection. Other favorites of mine included "Wood," which seems to understand a man's loneness — his need to be alone, but in a place where he feels himself as part of something greater — as clearly as Munro's other stories understand women's ways of relating to, and sometimes, avoiding one another. "Some Women" and "Child's Play" are especially about that complicated ballet. "Free Radicals" is another memorable story — or rather, two memorable stories, first of a woman's sudden and unexpected widowhood, and then of a startling irruption into her life that seems to reconfigure the meaning of everything. But even in this story, the conclusion is not an event but the protagonist's sudden understanding of events in a new way, even though she, or he, or we, may not be able to describe just what that new understanding is.
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