Books

Too Much Happiness

A New Collection from Alice Munro

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A RECENT TEMPEST in the teapot that is the internet involved Publisher's Weekly's list of the 10 best books of the year: All 10 of the books on the list were written by men, a fact that prompted an immediate outcry. (PW themselves drew attention to the lack of diversity, noting in the list's intro that "it disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.")

The PW oversight is frustrating less as a matter of politics than as a matter of taste. Offhand, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, and Lydia Millet had terrific new books out this year—Publisher's Weekly editors had no obligations to include books by women on their best-of list, but that they didn't begs questions about their judgment. Another easy contender might be the newest collection from Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness. Munro just picked up a Booker Award for her lifetime body of work—she's widely considered one of the best fiction writers in the English language. (But it was still unsurprising when, while I was reading the new collection, a male friend disparagingly observed, "My mom likes her.")

That Munro has a precise control of the language is indisputable. In her hands, small observations become beautiful ones. From the title story, as a man and a woman walk through a graveyard: "There is snow that day but it is soft. They leave melted, black footprints where they've walked."

Given Munro's command of the language, it's frustrating to feel, as one does with several of the stories here, that she's straining to find excitement in her plot points, when the simple drama of her language would have been sufficient. An old woman, for example, living alone after her husband's death, opens the door one day to find a mass murderer on her doorstep. Or a young woman, a maid, rides the bus for five hours to visit her incarcerated husband—the husband who murdered their three children. These attention-grabbing plot points paradoxically distract from what makes this collection really worthwhile: Munro's unimpeachable prose, confident and understated even in a story about a college girl having a naked dinner party with a pervy old rich man. Is it one of the best books of the year? Probably not, but it certainly contains some of the finest writing.

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