Recalling Lives Altered, in Ways Vivid and Untidy

‘Dear Life: Stories,’ by Alice Munro

Alice Munro, one of the foremost short-story writers of her generation, creates tales that have the scope and amplitude of novels: whole lives are condensed into a handful of pages, the progress of love is charted over the years as passion gives way to restlessness or deeper commitment or something more ambiguous.

Patricia Wall/The New York Times

DEAR LIFE - Stories

By Alice Munro
319 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. US$26.95.

Alice Munro - Derek Shapton
Her most powerful stories (in collections like “The Moons of Jupiter” and “Friend of My Youth”) have the complexity of small orchestral pieces: they move back and forth in time, gradually uncovering the patterns in characters’ lives; revealing how emotions are handed down generation to generation; how relationships between men and women and parents and children mutate over time; and how disappointments, hopes and losses reverberate through the echo chamber of family.
Ms. Munro’s latest collection, “Dear Life” — like her lumpy 2004 collection “Runaway” — gives us stories that have a similar density but that are less elliptical and less psychologically complex. With the exception of four revealing semi-autobiographical pieces that close the volume, most of the stories here pivot around a melodramatic event, and many have ironic, O. Henry-esque conclusions that can feel overly stage-managed.
People’s lives often change abruptly in Ms. Munro’s stories (by accident, bad luck or calculated risk), but her earlier tales tended to give us a kaleidoscopic views of such events, conveying both the precariousness of daily life and the subjectivity of memory. Ms. Munro, now 81, seems to have increasingly turned toward stories with more tightly plotted narratives, more closure and more Aesop-like morals — in sharp contrast to the many artists, like Tennessee Williams and Claude Monet, whose work grew increasingly abstract in later years. There is a terseness to these tales (more than half of which have a single word for a title), a sense of impatience on the part of the author.