Posted by: Jeanie F | December 19, 2009

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

Are there other storytellers who can pack as much into as little space as the magnificent Alice Munro? Her latest collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness, has taken her beyond her usual, insightful look into the lives of women and adds an edge that explores the darker impulses of human nature. Her ability to select the telling detail that moves us from the ordinary into the disturbing is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor.

This collection of stories – nine stories, really, and one novella – ranges from infanticide to sexual perversion to murder. So certain is Munroe’s hand in telling these stories that we are left with the uncomfortable feeling that even if we can’t see ourselves acting as the protagonist does, we understand and even empathize with the impulses.

All of the short stories in this collection carry a powerful punch, but I found myself most affected by “Free Radicals,” a deeply disturbing story that pits an ill woman against a home intruder. The sense of pure menace that escalates gradually as the story reaches its climax stayed with me for days, as did my admiration for the heroine’s ingenuity and courage.

The collection ends with the title entry, “Too Much Happiness.” This fictionalized biography of the last days of 19th century mathematician, Sophia Kovalevsky, shows a woman out of step with her times. Winner of the prestigious Bordin Prize of the French Academy of Sciences, Kovalevsky is blocked from the respect and acclaim one would expect her to receive for her prodigious gifts. She is viewed as “an utter novelty, a delightful freak, the woman of mathematical gifts and female timidity, quite charming, yet with a mind most unconventionally furnished, under her curls.” The award drives a wedge between Kovalevsky and her lover, Maksim Maksimovich Kovalevsky (the surnames are identical due to her marriage to a distant cousin of his); the emotional challenges of this relationship impact her ability to focus on her mathematics.

In Saleem Nawaz’s review of “Too Much Happiness,” she states that “the difficulty in writing an Alice Munro review is avoiding superlatives.” This collection of stories makes this a  particular challenge.

Addendum

The Fall 2010 Virginia Quarterly Review has an outstanding interview with Munro on the stories included in Too Much Happiness.


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