Big Books

Gift guide

Big Books

Runaway

by Alice Munro

Knopf, 320 pp., $24

In her characteristically plainspoken style, the esteemed Ontario-based Alice Munro examines a series of partnerships – romantic, parent-child, between friends and neighbors and strangers who cross paths fatefully – in eight stories. Each deals in its own way with disillusionment and hard-won knowledge; the observations herein aren't necessarily pessimistic ("Passion" glimpses a moment of liberation, though it comes at a price), but the stories share a grave tone and a degree of insight, at times uncomfortable, that lingers long after the last page is turned. While Munro's voice is straightforward and deceptively simple, her narrative strategy is not: The stories flash back and forth between moments of reflection and moments of action, and the last, "Powers," hops between different points of view – and between different possible realities. The simplest story, "Tricks," is also perhaps the most powerful, as the vicissitudes of travel (a train missed, a play caught, and a purse left behind) play havoc with a rural woman's destiny. Three of the stories involve the same narrator at different stages in her life; they resolve on a note that is pitch-perfect for the short-story format, neither too open nor too closed. There are no tidy resolutions here, just the satisfaction of events running their course in an unforced, natural flow. When Munro shifts gears a bit radically – the narrator of "Trespasses" is a schoolgirl who discovers a bizarre secret about her laissez-faire hippie parents – her characterizations retain their integrity. Where a lesser writer would stumble (or worse, seem gimmicky), Munro keeps the reader firmly anchored in the worlds she creates. What remains is a deeply observant study in human nature amid the swirl of time and chance.

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