Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lives of Girls and Women

I'm not sure how I got through both high school and an English degree without reading Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, but I did. Luckily, though, I knew enough to hunt down a copy (which wasn't really that difficult).

The novel follows Del Jordan, a girl growing up in small-town Ontario during the Second World War into the '50s. Beginning when Del is pretty young (I don't think Munro is ever explicit about Del's age, but she's probably 7 or 8 at the beginning of the story), Munro charts her life in Jubilee.

And there is so much to Del. If ever there was a character so well described that he or she could wake up and walk off the page, it was Del Jordan. I think I knew at least two girls just like her when I was growing up. Maybe I was just like her.

Munro starts her story in the country where Del lives with her parents and younger brother. She introduces Del's small world in clipped, but vivid detail. Sometimes I go back just to read the scenes where Munro describes something because the words she uses bring you to the place you're reading about: you can hear the wind in the grass, smell the harvest coming and feel the mud under your feet. And you learn a shocking amount about the characters by the way they describe their setting. Early on you learn that Del's mother wants nothing more than to move to the town, something that changes Del's whole world.

Munro's ability to remember what mattered to girls at varying ages and express it without irony or a wink to the reader is pretty amazing - and not a little unnerving. There are definitely a few scenes in the novel that make me squirm every time I read them because they hit just a little too close to home.

I don't know if I have a favourite scene, but the ones of Del in school have always stuck out in my memory. The chapter about the operetta and Del hoping beyond hope to be chosen, trying to stand just the right way, so reminded me of Elementary School Christmas concerts. Every kid seems to have a secret desire (please let me be in the back row, please let me get a solo, please let them not notice me at all, etc.) and Munro's descriptions of Del's secret wishes are just so perfect. It's as if Munro is able to recreate childhood memories by having you read about scenes you were never actually involved in.

Most of the hype around the book is about how well portrayed Del's "sexual awakening" is. And I wouldn't dispute that (although I certainly think there are other details worthy of attention). Without being indiscrete about her details, Munro brings the reader into some hilarious and slightly embarrassing moments for Del, all of which are not only believable but familiar. The story does not devolve when Del falls in love and starts having sex, rather it becomes more complicated, drawing you in to the small world of a girl in love. And although Munro must like Del as much as I do, she still tells us about Del's mistakes, her blindness to certain things, reminding us that although it's fiction, Del's story is a true story.

Munro is best known for writing short stories, and although I've been calling Lives of Girls and Women a novel, it can easily be read as a collection of short fiction. Yes, all the chapters work together on one, larger story arc (how Del grows up), but each one remains distinct and complete as a story in itself. And it's the structure as well as the story that makes this a book that's so easy to come back to: Reading just one chapter is enough to reel you back in as well as make you feel like you've read a good story - which you have.

Lives of Girls and Women
By Alice Munro
First published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson in 1971 (cover image shown from Random House edition)

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