Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

“Passion” Alice Munro

Like Alva in “Sunday Afternoons” and Edie in “How I Met My Husband”, Grace is a young woman with a summer job.

But even within the context of this transitory existence and experience, she settles into a routine, steadfast and predictable.

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

McClelland & Stewart, 2004

Soon, Grace is spending her summer Sundays with the Travers family as reliably as Liza spent summer Saturdays with Ladner in “Vandals”.

But there is an element of disappointment for Grace in this situation, even though (perhaps, because?) it is an enviable position for a young woman of her age and class to inhabit in those times.

Grace comes from a place in which she read James Thurber in The Anthology of American Humor, whereas the Travers matriarch has reread Anna Karenina so many times that she can compare how differently she felt about each of the characters in each of her rereads.

She would not have foreseen Maury’s interest in her. And he, in turn, did not foresee her frustration with “Father of the Bride”. This unexpected, seemingly inexplicable conflict, foreshadows more lasting heartbreak.

“She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop like that or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like.”

Grace is incensed by Elizabeth Taylor in that role, with her wheedling and demanding, and she does not dismiss it as a comedy as Maury does. She takes personal offense.

“That was what men – people, everybody – thought they should be like. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with.”

And, yet, ironically, Maury does fall in love with Grace.

And Grace falls in love too. But with Mrs. Travers – an alterative to Elizabeth Taylor it would seem – not with Maury.

In contrast, Maury is not smitten with the image of womanhood that his mother displays.

“It’s okay though – they can get her straightened around easy now, with drugs. They’ve got terrific drugs.”

Are we all-that-far from the days of treating women for hysteria? It’s hard to suss out the dimensions of Mrs. Travers’ despair, but it is integrally connected with her being a woman, and her treatment regiment reflects this.

So if Mrs. Travers is what a woman should be like, if she provides the alternate-reality for “Father of the Bride” viewers, and if Grace seeks to emulate her position, Grace is set on the path for disappointment (and, possibly, a prescription).

Throughout “Passion”, there is a sense that something unpleasant is lurking. Readers soon understand why Grace is preoccupied with these past events, why she has taken to the backroads of the Ottawa Valley to see if she can locate the Travers’ summer house, many years later. For, ultimately, things take a turn.

It is not unlike the tale of another couple making a stop at the bootlegger’s (“Spaceships Have Landed”), stepping outside the realm of acceptability and into something other.

And, as Grace traverses this territory, she comes to understand something she had not struck upon before. And, even years later, she is haunted by decisions made that summer.

“She had thought she was serious, but now she saw that she’d been trying to impress him with these answers, trying to show herself as worldly as he was, and in the middle of that she had come on this rock-bottom truth.”

This recalls the May Sarton quote about layers of concealment and the truth which lies beneath. “It always comes down to the same necessity; go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.”

However hard, Alice Munro navigates the backroads of women’s hearts, striking the bedrock with a solid blow, as  readers struggle to regain their footing.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Runaway as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fifth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Trespasses”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.

2 comments to “Passion” Alice Munro

  • Sandra

    I enjoyed Munro’s portrayal of the evolution of Grace’s understanding of herself in this story, especially the point at the hospital where she felt “it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her…the rights of others left behind were smoothly cancelled.” And before that point in the story, in a discussion of Anna Karenina with Mrs. Travers, the latter says “Passion gets pushed behind the washtubs.” And there was the statement that, when Maury talked about getting married, Grace was more delighted about the travelling that would be involved than about having her own home. Just little things but all indicating that Grace probably wasn’t headed for a traditional life.

    • Love that bit about the washtubs; I missed that: thanks. Not that I think Mrs. Travers really spent all that much time in the laundry. But, still. I wonder what the story told from Mrs. Travers perspective would be like, whether she was resistant, as Grace was, to the idea of a restricted, confined life initially, or if she only realized her unhappiness later.

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