Sunday, 19 June 2011

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

GENRE: short stories/realism/contemporary fiction

A collection of ten short stories.

In the first story a young wife and mother receives release from the unbearable pain of losing her three children from a most surprising source. In another, a young woman, in the aftermath of an unusual and humiliating seduction, reacts in a clever if less-than-admirable fashion. Other stories uncover the “deep-holes” in a marriage, the unsuspected cruelty of children, and how a boy’s disfigured face provides both the good things in his life and the bad. And in the long title story, we accompany Sophia Kovalevsky—a late-nineteenth-century Russian √©migr√© and mathematician—on a winter journey that takes her from the Riviera, where she visits her lover, to Paris, Germany, and, Denmark, where she has a fateful meeting with a local doctor, and finally to Sweden, where she teaches at the only university in Europe willing to employ a female mathematician.

This collection of short stories is my first encounter with Alice Munro, a famous and respected Canadian short-story writer and winner of many prizes, including the Man Booker International Prize in 2009.

The ten short stories talk about people in different life situations and how they cope with their predicaments. The stories show that happiness, relief or atonement can be found in truly small things, and the desired happy ending does not necessarily involve hugs and kisses; sometimes, a happy ending can be just one thing finally giving a person release or better insight. The stories tackle real people and put stress on emotions, as well as on the way a human mind works. All of the stories are touching or revealing in one way or another, and most importantly, they make the reader pause and think a little.

The stories tackle many different subjects: a murder of three children and how their mother tries to overcome the terrible loss; children committing crimes; broken marriages; awkward sexual experiences; accepting those are different; and so on. Sometimes, it may seem that at first, a story does not really make sense, that there is no real punch line. But those stories draw on the idea that happiness can be found in small and unexpected things. They imitate life truly well.

The title story, “Too Much Happiness”, which speaks about Sophia Kovalevsky, a real historical person, is actually the story that disappointed me a little. It is well constructed and sums up Sophia’s life truly well, but what I found was missing was the exploration of Sophia’s mathematical genius and her talent for writing fiction. Munro focused on her relationship with other people and how she often struggled because she was a female mathematician among so many male scientists, but very little was said about how she wrote fiction, what she wrote and why. Also, her relationship with mathematics was lacking in the story. Apparently, she is famous for those things, so I would have loved to read more about them. I suppose that writing about a real person can be quite tricky. Still, this was a strong story and one I truly enjoyed reading.

This collection contains something suitable for everyone. Apart from in “Too Much Happiness,” the setting is Canada and since I rarely read books written by Canadian authors or set in Canada, this was a real treat for me, something fresh and new.

If you are looking for a realistic, but not too heavy read, this collection of short stories may just be perfect for you.



Unknown said...

Interesting. I thought this would be really heavy. I have only read one Booker Prize Winner - The Blind Assassin by Margaret Awtwood and that was rather dense. I think I expect all Booker winning writers to be equally as challenging. I'd like to read more books set in Canada too.

Jo K said...

It is fascinating how happiness can be found in little things. I haven't read a lot of book set in Canada, either, I expect it would be nice reading something about an unfamiliar environment.

Teacher/Learner said...

I'm glad you had the opportunity to discover Alice Munro. She is quite a gem in Canada. I read a book of hers in university & didn't like it but then I read her short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, and loved it. It became the movie Away From Her. I would highly recommend trying it. It's available for free online.

Blodeuedd said...

It sounds sad, I am not good with sad :(
Though the other one, I do like the sound of that one

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

This sounds amazing; I've never read any Alice Munro but I bet these short stories would be a good introduction for me.

Jan von Harz said...

I greatly admire a writer's ability to write short stories because it limits them to really developing characters in a short amount of time. It sounds as if with Too Much Happiness perhaps Munro had difficulty doing just that.

I enjoyed your review and will check this out.