Short Satisfactions

Friend of My Youth

by Alice Munro
Knopf, 273 pp., $18.95

Family Sins and Other Stories

by William Trevor
Viking, 251 pp., $18.95

Men Under Water

by Ralph Lombreglia
Doubleday, 212 pp., $17.95

Alice Munro (whose sixth collection of stories this is) amusingly suggests her approach to writing short fiction in the story “Differently”:

Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.

Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed pleased with it. Georgia herself thought that it was a fake. She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story….

The course was not a total loss, because Georgia and the instructor ended up living together. They still live together, in Ontario, on a farm. They sell raspberries, and run a small publishing business.

Alice Munro refuses to be bound by the rules—about time, place, and action—that a writing instructor might urge upon students. “Differently” moves, in a seemingly leisurely fashion, back and forth across many years to trace the story of Georgia, who was once married to a naval officer and has lived an apparently conventional life as a wife and young mother in a well-to-do Canadian suburb. There she becomes friends with a rich, childless, defiantly unconventional woman named Maya. “On the first level, they were friends as wives; on the second as themselves.”

As wives they listen dutifully to the school reminiscences of Ben and Raymond, the husbands. The deadpan narrator comments,

Ben and Raymond did not believe in leaving women out of the conversation. They believed that women were every bit as intelligent as men.

But “as themselves,” Georgia and Maya create fantasies about people they know—and confide their adulteries. Eventually Maya has an “accidental” one-night fling with Georgia’s motorcyclist lover. She begs Georgia’s forgiveness, but Georgia is implacable. The betrayal ends the friendship forever, and shortly afterward Georgia puts an end to her marriage to Ben as well.

“People [Georgia concludes] make momentous shifts, but not the changes they imagine.” Some fifteen years later, after Maya has died she sees Raymond again, and remarks that “we never behave as if we believed we were going to die.” He asks, How should they behave? ” ‘Differently,’ says Georgia. She puts a foolish stress on the word, meaning that her answer is so lame that she can offer it only as a joke.” Georgia’s answer reflects not so much a moral judgment as a bewilderment about the unruliness, the unpredictability, of life in a time when the traditional constraints have given way to an anarchy of impulse. How should she behave? There are no answers—not even dusty ones. A moment that she has experienced of “accidental clarity” leads nowhere, proves nothing.

The changes that occur year by year, the unexpected working out of personal destinies—themes more usually taken up in…

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