As one of the shorter stories in this volume, I was inclined, at first pass, to presume it was a simpler story. Its ending seemed to underscore this impression.
But then there is the matter of the story “Fiction”, which appears earlier in this volume.
“Fiction” seems to tell another version of this story, in which another carpenter’s assistant becomes the “other woman”.
Of course, some of the details are different: names and such, the kind of work done, the role of the assistant.
But there is a man who works with wood. There is a wife. There is a younger woman who becomes a new wife.
And then there is another detail, the title of this story, which is not just a detail but a vitally important clue. (In fact, “Free Radicals” might be a ‘free radical’ in the context of this collection.)
Nita does not quite understand the concept of free radicals.
She refers to them in terms of what she consumes. Her cancer is in remission, but obviously she has been warned as to the havoc that can be wrecked on her body, if there is an excess of something harmful.
So, there has been talk about red wine and herbal tea. But this is not uncomplicated because while Nita has absorbed that it is a matter of balance, she cannot recall the exact nature of the relationship between red wine and free radicals.
As a character, she knows that a lot of something is desirable, and correspondingly less of something else, but her motivation remains unclear (in this regard, and in more serious matters, past and present).
She has given up drinking wine; she has adopted the habit of drinking herbal tea. She has made these choices with only a vague understanding that such habits, daily choices, impact broader trends and events.
Alice Munro, however, as author, does understand the science.
The concept of free radicals, rooted in chemistry, involves an unattached electron which can cause damage if it exists in a solitary manner.
Relevant to this story, the significant factor is that when this unattached electron is paired, attached to something else, the damage is halted and the electron becomes something new and different in its freshly combined state.
Relevant to Nita’s decision-making, it is a question of eating and drinking things which contain antioxidants, which will bind with the problematic free radicals and reduce the imbalance.
But Alice Munro presents this character, who is openly contradictory, who seeks antioxidants in one place (tea) but ironically avoids them in another (wine).
And there is another central contradiction as well, because Nita deliberately presents as truthful something which she quietly admits is a falsehood.
The story begins with a number of falsehoods, so readers are unsurprised by the tendency, but some of the details might remain surprising. For instance, Nita pretends to be eating and sleeping just fine, even though her routine has crumbled, following the unexpected death of her husband. When concerned friends press her, she habitually offers them an acceptable version of events, designed to redirect their energies.
Alice Munro is introducing readers to a woman of contradictions, small and large.
She creates Nita, who could be either the free-floating damaging particle or the attached-happily-married particle.
(In the story which Nita spins to her listener, she is the bonded element. She is the one who has ousted the outlaw element. But she admits that she has presented herself as that bonded element, and readers know that she was, in fact, the renegade solitary. “Dear Bett, Rich is dead and I have saved my life by becoming you.”)
And, furthermore, Alice Munro offers this other story, “Fiction”, which could serve as the other side of a much-needed bond.
(In “Fiction”, the narrator really is the bonded element, when the story begins. The free radical, the assistant, does not get a voice in “Fiction”. And even in the fiction which the free radical’s daughter writes, the focus is shifted yet again. And readers are reminded of the fragile and essential relationships between fact and imagination.)
Perhaps if “Free Radicals” binds with “Fiction”, something-like-truth comes together.
As a free-floating tale in this collection, there are many details to enjoy. I love the palette: the wine, the ketchup on eggs, the stitching on a blouse, the red veins of the rhubarb. The dialogue and interplay between Nita and her guest. The seamless weaving of simmering backstory to boiling present-day plot.
But the ultimate pleasure in “Free Radicals” lies, for me, in sorting out the attachments.
Nita once loved her fiction.
“She hadn’t been just a once-through reader either. Brothers Karamazov, Mill on the Floss, Wings of the Dove, Magic Mountain, over and over again. She would pick one up, thinking that she would just read that special bit—and find herself unable to stop until the whole thing was redigested. She read modern fiction too. Always fiction. She hated to hear the word ‘escape’ used about fiction. She might have argued, not just playfully, that it was real life that was the escape. But this was too important to argue about.”
It was not an ‘escape’ for her: for Nita, if fiction is reality, then real life is the ‘escape’.
If the ‘escape’ she plots, as her listener attends to every details, involves sharing the details of her real life, then perhaps our understanding was a deliberate mis-understanding on Nita’s part.
What are we readers to do, when our fictional character turns her back on the worlds of fiction that she has, for so many years, willingly inhabited.
Well, that just makes everything about “Free Radicals” real, doesn’t it?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness 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, “Face”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.