Where to start reading Alice Munro

where to start reading alice munro

If you’d like to start reading Alice Munro short stories but are not sure where to start, I have some recommendations.

But first, if you’d like to read the freely available stories before buying a collection, LitHub have made a list of Alice Munro stories available free online. The list grows by a lot if you have access to the New Yorker archives.

If you prefer to see a film adaptation before sinking into the text

Watch Away From Her and then read “The Bear Came Over The Mountain“.

You’d like to start with Alice Munro’s most anthologised stories

You’re a child free woman who notices when meeting up with women who’ve had families that they really can’t understand you

  • Read “Wigtime” in the September 4, 1989 edition of The New Yorker and also in the Friend Of My Youth collection.

If you’re single and sick of coupled people trying to force their amatonormative ideas onto you and would like to read an author who is sympathetic to different ways of living a good life:

If you are a young reader e.g. teenager

Start with Munro’s first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. The main characters of these stories are themselves young, from early childhood to young(ish) adulthood. Munro wrote these stories over many years.

If you’re not really a short story reader and would always find it easier to sink into a novel

  • Stories in Lives of Girls and Women are all about the life of a woman called Del Jordan. Some commentators call this collection a novel. It’s the closest thing to a novel Munro ever wrote.
  • It has been speculated that “The Found Boat” is also about Del Jordan, but didn’t make it into that collection.
  • The unnamed narrator of “Winter Wind” is also similar to the character of Del Jordan.

If you’re a young mother who is finding it hard to carve out time for herself

Stories with overt feminist messages

  • Feminism 101: “Boys and Girls
  • Women are expected to give random men attention: “The Office
  • Boys learn to commandeer more of the world, and girls are taught to let them take it: “The Found Boat
  • Power differential can be dangerous for young women enamored by a glamorous situation: “Sunday Afternoon

You’re a carer, especially to an elderly relative

Alice Munro wrote numerous stories about the life of caregiving, an area neglected by most authors.

  • The Peace of Utrecht
  • Images
  • “Memorial”
  • “The Ottawa Valley”
  • Winter Wind
  • “Spelling”
  • “Friend of My Youth”
  • Wigtime
  • “Accident”
  • “Chaddleleys and Flemings: Connection”
  • “Family Furnishings”
  • “Soon”
  • “The Ticket”

If you’ve tried Alice Munro before but you found her stories impenetrable

You may find you’re old enough now no matter where you start. I first tried reading Alice Munro when I was about 30, but I wasn’t sufficiently mature enough to really appreciate her until I was 40. No doubt I’ll continue to get more out of her stories the older I get, especially since Alice Munro writes so frequently about old age, and the insights which come from hindsight, reflection, gratitude and regret.

That said, “In Sight of the Lake” is an easy read. It’s quick, it’s present tense, the symbolism is very clear. Munro doesn’t mess around with time like she sometimes does. You won’t have any trouble knowing what’s going on.

Munro does discombobulate you. She helps readers to imagine what it’s like to be getting older and ‘losing your mind’. So don’t expect to know exactly what’s going on.

If you or your partner has slept with someone else and you’re trying to process that whole deal

  • Try “Wigtime“, especially if you’re a woman whose husband has a thing for much younger partners.
  • Differently” is one of those stories in which a pair of older people look back on their younger selves, when they were all sleeping with each other. They’d do things differently now (hence the title).

If you want ‘Peak Munro’ with all the layering, metaphor, mise en abyme, the whole kit and caboodle

  • Meneseteung” has it all. If you can handle this short story, you can handle anything Alice Munro throws at you.
  • Walking on Water” is incomprehensible to some readers. Munro herself doesn’t consider it her best. But other commentators consider this story their favourite. (I found it improved ten-fold on close examination.)

You have an interesting relationship with an adult sibling

You’d like a crime story

You’d like a version of the film Stand By Me but told from the point of view of a mature woman rather than adolescent boys

If your adult children are estranged from you, or otherwise missing

Your friends are drifting away from you and you’re trying to deal with that

If you enjoy domestic stories set on farms

If you’re hankering after a snowy, Canadian setting

  • The Bear Came Over The Mountain” features cross-country skiing as daily exercise. This made me almost want to move to Canada. (I’m sure I would not enjoy the snow shovelling).

A hot, Canadian summer

You’ve lost your partner

You’ve left your spouse

It was you who had sex with the wrong person

You need to learn how to spot a narcissist or a coercively controlling partner

You’re young, you’ve done something foolish and you think it’s the end of the world

  • An Ounce of Cure” will reassure you it’s not the end of the world at all.

You’re interested in social inequality in its various forms

You’re aspec or know someone who is

  • Start with “A Real Life“. I suspect you’ll appreciate the character Dorrie. However you read her, this story interrogates amatonormativity. Also, it’s not the aromantic character who ends up sad and lonely. Nope!
  • Valerie of “Labor Day Dinner” also seems to be aromantic, a bit like Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice.
  • If you’re a young aspec person still in high school, don’t go past “Red Dress–1946“.
  • Spaceships Have Landed” for a possible asexual marriage

For some 20th century history

You love a classic fairy tale

You make sure to read banned work

  • The Lives of Girls and Women” from the same-named collection is probably the reason the book got banned. Would it still get banned today? Sure. Book banning hasn’t gone anywhere.

You’re wondering which church is right for you

  • Age of Faith

You like open endings where you have to read the metaphorical layer of story to work out what happened

You have a high tolerance for violence and/or gore

  • Read “Royal Beating“. This is one of Munro’s earlier stories. Find it in The Beggar Maid. The rest of the stories of this collection together form a novel about two women, Flo and Rose. (Flo is Rose’s step-mother.)
  • The Turkey Season” is also very visceral in its description of turkey gutting and plucking at a turkey factory.

On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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