Review: In 'Too Much Happiness,' Alice Munro delivers 10 stories with a masterful twist

The stories in Too Much Happiness are about emotional equations — those unknown variables that trip us up in love and life. • That's fitting, given that the title story is about a real-life 19th century Russian mathematician, a brilliant woman far ahead of her time who developed early theories of partial differential equations, wrote fiction — and struggled with both success and love. • The 10 stories in Alice Munro's knockout new collection vary in setting and main character, but they all deal somehow with the unexpected, even unimaginable results of events. As one character thinks, "It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness — however temporary, however flimsy — of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another." • In each of these stories Munro gives us main characters (eight women, two men) who have undergone some dramatic event: the loss of a spouse or child, the betrayal of a friend, a scarring childhood shock. In the hands of many other writers, such stories would be predictable, but Munro is the master of the inevitable surprise.

The first part of Fiction recounts the breakup of music teacher Joyce's marriage to her high school sweetheart. Both bright and quirky, they've considered each other soul mates for years, and she's utterly shocked when he leaves her for a humorless, dumpy single mother. The second part of the story picks Joyce up a couple of decades later, secure in a far happier marriage and more agreeable life.

But Joyce discovers the other part of the equation of her own happiness when her stepson invites a young woman to a party. Joyce doesn't at first remember her, but the way she remembers Joyce transforms the older woman's perception of her divorce all those years ago.

Wenlock Edge is narrated by another young woman, a Canadian college student in the 1950s, who unwillingly acquires a roommate named Nina. Soon they are confidants, and Nina retails the shocking story of her life: a teenage marriage, a vanished husband, two little sons abandoned, jobs in the big city, an abortion, and her current status as mistress to a much older rich man, Mr. Purvis, who has agreed to let her attend college but tracks her every movement.

"Her life made me feel like a simpleton," the narrator says. But she also finds Nina's strange life a little thrilling — until she gets an inside look at it during the most disturbing poetry reading ever. Then she must decide how she can take back the emotional equation of her life.

Another controlling man, this one truly terrifying, appears in Dimensions. Its protagonist, Doree, meets him while she's a teenager, at her mother's deathbed. He's older, confident and charming, and soon they're married.

They move to the country, she has three babies, and slowly but surely he cuts her off from other people, tells her what to wear, what to think, when to shut up. When she makes the most tentative gesture toward freedom, the consequences are shattering. Even from a cell, he keeps his hold on her, until she finally finds a surprising route to escape.

Munro has an uncanny ability to take us inside a character's mind, as she does with a widow named Nita in Free Radicals. Prepared for her own coming death from cancer, Nita is stunned almost beyond belief when her husband, Rich, dies suddenly. "She thought carefully, every morning when she first took her seat, of the places where Rich was not. He was not in the smaller bathroom where his shaving things still were, and the prescription pills for various troublesome but not serious ailments that he refused to throw out. Nor was he in the bedroom which she had just tidied and left. . . . Or in the study. That was where of all places his absence had to be most firmly established. At first she found it necessary to go to the door and stand there. . . ."

Nita, too, has a story of divorce in her past — decades before, she had been "the happy home wrecker" — and looking at that from someone else's perspective will prove useful in a most extraordinary way.

The title story draws its main character, Sophia Kovalevsky, from real life. A Russian born in 1850, she was educated in Germany, because women were not allowed to attend Russian universities. A brilliant theorist, she became the first woman in Europe to earn a doctoral degree in mathematics and, many years later, the first to hold a university chair.

Her political and personal life was as complicated as the mathematics she studied, and Munro explores her "white marriage" (of convenience) with paleontologist Vladimir Kovalevsky, a scientific collaborator of Charles Darwin's, and her tempestuous relationship with sociologist Maxsim Kovalevsky, a distant cousin of her husband's and her true love.

The story ranges across Sophia's short life but focuses on her final days, especially a harrowing train trip she takes from Genoa to Stockholm, unaware she is dying of flu and pneumonia. Perhaps delirious from fever or drugs, or perhaps finally enlightened, she envisions freedom from both an academic world that sees her as "a multilingual parrot" or "a delightful freak" and from a romantic life hobbled by men who could not bear to be in her shadow.

She tells friends who are caring for her at the end that she is planning a new novel. "There was a movement back and forth, she said, there was a pulse in life. Her hope was that in this piece of writing she would discover what went on. Something underlying. Invented, but not." The story's title is borrowed from her last words.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Too Much

Happiness: Stories

By Alice Munro

Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95

Review: In 'Too Much Happiness,' Alice Munro delivers 10 stories with a masterful twist 12/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 3:30am]

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