Life Studies


by Alice Munro
Knopf, 335 pp., $25.00

Alice Munro
Alice Munro; drawing by David Levine

“Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” Eliphaz the Temanite told Job. In Alice Munro’s stories, it is the women who are born that way and the men, mostly, who cause it. “You flare up,” says Carla, in the title story of Munro’s new collection. “That’s what men do,” her husband, Clark, replies and Carla doesn’t answer back. She may be young and confused, but she is old enough to know that she’s complaining about nothing worse than his impatience and irritability: he picks fights at the local store, squabbles with clients of their nickel-and-dime riding school, and is chronically sullen with her. Trivial stuff, nothing to worry about. But Carla travels a long way in the course of a short story, and by the end “what men do” has come to seem altogether more sinister than mere moodiness.

There are two runaways in the story—first Flora, their pet goat, then Carla herself—and, as Munro describes them, they sound very alike:

At first [Flora] had been Clark’s pet entirely, following him everywhere, dancing for his attention. She was quick and graceful and provocative as a kitten, and her resemblance to a guileless girl in love had made them both laugh. But as she grew older she seemed to attach herself to Carla, and in this attachment she was suddenly much wiser, less skittish—she seemed capable, instead, of a subdued and ironic sort of humor.

Carla herself is too young for irony, too brimming with emotion, and when the little goat disappears her despair seems like the culmination of “her seesaw misery with Clark.” She spills out her unhappiness to Sylvia Jamieson, the recently bereaved neighbor she cleans for, and Sylvia, being sympathetic, practical, and sophisticated—she is a college teacher, her late husband was a famous poet—encourages her to make a break for freedom.

Nobody lives happily ever after in Alice Munro’s stories, so the plan doesn’t work out: Carla chickens out of a new life in Toronto a mere two bus stops from home and she never sees the lost goat again. Only later, when all is seemingly forgiven and her marriage appears to be flourishing, does she hear, at second hand, that little Flora had reappeared miraculously out of the night at Sylvia Jamieson’s house, just in time to defuse what might have been a violent confrontation between Carla’s outraged husband and her would-be savior. But Clark hasn’t mentioned this to Carla and somehow the little creature disappears once more on the short trip home in the back of his truck. The only traces of her Carla can find later on are some “little dirty bones…[and] a skull that she could hold like a teacup in one hand. Knowledge in one hand.” She has learned, in other words, what her husband means when he says, “That’s what men do,” though, like the bones, this knowledge is…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.