After a lifetime of collecting, Mr. Joseph Herbert Neill sold 1,000 objects to the county on the condition that they open a museum and appoint him curator. This is the story I imagine lurking behind the Walley museum in the opening paragraphs of “The Love of a Good Woman”, behind D.M. Willens’ ophthalmoscope.
“Everything is black, but that is only paint. In some places where the optometrist’s hand must have rubbed most often, the paint has disappeared and you can see a patch of shiny silver metal.”
What lies beneath the paint, what usage steadily erodes that layer: these are the subjects which lurk beneath the surface of a story, which opens with a segment titled “Jutland”, in which three boys discover D.M. Willens’ car beneath the surface of the Peregrine River one spring morning in 1951.
In Walley, there is a way of living: customary times for everyday activities and ribbons drawn around social groups, pulling folks together into the expected communities and associations.
In Walley, the lives of these three boys were quite different but, as they walked away from the town, they left those differences behind.
While they move towards the river, the similarities and their shared experiences coalesce and swell, culminating in the discovery of the car, of the body inside.
Then, the story slips into their individual lives. Cece Ferns, Bud Salter, and Jimmy Box are examined more closely in sequential passages: the reader brushes against an understanding of their differing life experiences.
In Walley, the story returns to their shared experience but their individual efforts to cope with it, in the context of their shared decision “not to tell”, as everyday events unfold.
For now, they have allowed everyone else to see only the black paint, not the worn spots, not what lies beneath.
First, the boys did not tell (though they would have been heard). Then, the boys do tell (and they are not heard and pretend they had not told). Finally, one of them will tell.
It’s like that in the story – didn’t tell, do tell, will tell – the chronology dances, and the reader struggles to catch the rhythm, while the act of telling is not actually shared with the reader but unravels off-the-page.
Then, the story shifts into its second segment, as abruptly as the road turns at the end of the bridge where the boys found the car.
Readers meet Enid, a nurse, caring for Mrs. Quinn, whose days are numbered, in “Heart Failure”.
(There are echoes of other tales here: to “Fits” in the reference to Mrs. Quinn’s fits – the memory of unexpected violence, to the caretaking in “The Peace of Utrecht” – the grinding everyday of constantly meeting another’s needs, to “A Wilderness Station” with the discussion of the prison yard behind the walls of the jail.)
Only just making these characters’ acquaintance, the reader is presently settling into the Quinns’ household, complete with a “doomed, miserable young woman” but also her husband, Rupert, and two little girls.
But the story is told through Enid’s eyes, looking back. And there is a malice to the telling, which only makes sense after the reader has finished reading.
Enid has already seen beneath the surface, and the reader’s view of black on shiny metal does not jive with her perspective.
There are contradictions. Which suits Enid’s situation.
“So, quickly and easily, still in her youth, she was slipping into this essential, central, yet isolated role.”
Readers have more opportunity to nestle in with Enid’s history. She has lived longer than the boys, she has been of an age to observe significant social and historical change – in Walley and the world beyond: there is more to understand about Enid.
And, too, about Mrs. Quinn and the relationship between these two women.
Which only becomes clear at the end of the second segment. “‘Sure. Lies,’ Mrs. Quinn said. ‘I bet it’s all lies. You know Mr. Willens was right here in this room?'”
In each of the previous segments of the story, there has been a shift backwards in time (several nesting inside broader shifts, in many instances).
This is true, too, for the third segment – which is all-of-a-piece, and also for the last segment, which joins the seam to the events described in the earlier segments, moving parallel to the first segment and, finally, just beyond. (It’s not possible to discuss these shifts in any greater detail without hinting at plot points.)
Enid struggles to make sense of things: “Moving her body shook up the information that she was trying to arrange in her head and get used to.”
The reader feels this intensely: there is a great deal to arrange in this story, and as its final segments unfold, a lot to get used to. Expectation and anticipation: the reader is thwarted and coaxed, the tale startlingly intimate and unsettling.
Enid’s process is shared, to some extent, but the reader is not necessarily limited to her view. There are, after all, the other segments of the story, and there is – for instance – part of Mrs. Quinn’s diary.
Just as the reader can shake up the information provided by multiple letter-writers in “A Wilderness Station” and recognize that what unfolds off-the-page can be more vitally important to understanding than what is outlined on it, as in “Vandals”, the arrangement is complex and absorbing.
“The Love of a Good Woman” is a quest for order, but not one handed in a tidy bundle to the reader, one yet to be unravelled and rebound.
The story was first published in the December 1996 “Special Fiction Issue”. Originally the editors had considered publishing the long story in more than one part, but the special fiction issue afforded the opportunity to publish in its entirety.
(It appeared with stories by Richard Russo and Don DeLillo, a piece about food written by Salman Rushdie, and a new translation of an Anton Chekov story.)
In his biography of Alice Munro, Robert Thacker explains that the issue listed each story on the contents page with a rhetorical cutline.
Munro’s read: “How much is too much? A story of murder, an appalling secret, and a perversion of the romantic.”
Thacker also presents Carol Beran’s analysis of the story as it appeared in “The New Yorker” and her observation that the story was interrupted, with quotations used as running heads within the story, 122 times.
Relatively speaking, there were few changes to the version of the story that appeared in “The New Yorker”, but the author’s note at the beginning of The Love of a Good Woman states: “Stories included in this collection that were previously published in The New Yorker appeared there in very different form.”
Versions upon versions upon versions: Munro readers likely possess a love of unravelling.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the first story in the collection of the same name. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week: “Jakarta”.