Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win for literature on Thursday is a long-awaited triumph not only for Canada, but for the short story, a form which causes trouble for readers and writers alike. Readers expect stories to be easy to read and digest—after all, they’re short! Writers believe short stories can be taken apart like a radio to figure out how they work—after all, they’re short!
Neither turns out to be true. And nowhere is it less true than with Alice Munro.
Reading Munro, more than almost any other writer I can think of, is a personal journey (which might explain why Alice Munro book clubs are hard to find). So the question of where to start with Munro is likewise personal—and just as easily answered by saying, “Start anywhere! And don’t stop.”
But that’s not very helpful. So here are five stories—four of them, as it happens, the title stories of their respective collections—that are as good as places to begin as any. I’ve chosen five that span the length of her career, though, remarkably, that matters much less than you might think it would. They are listed below chronologically, and linked to where available online.
“Lives of Girls and Women” (Lives of Girls and Women, 1971)
Few write about the horror and thrill of budding sexuality as well as Munro, an experience that runs in parallel with so many other things: self-discovery, self-assertion, the dynamics of gender and power. Here, young Del Jordan has a teasing, tantalizing flirtation with the gentleman friend of her mother’s boarder. It contains possibly the most comic description of an unwanted penis you will ever read.
“The Moons of Jupiter” (The Moons of Jupiter, 1982)
A good primer for how Munro’s stories often look one way but feel another. With her father in the hospital and her own daughter absent, the narrator visits a planetarium. A planetarium, of course! And yet the usually reliable celestial-body metaphor somehow fails to adequately explain the blank space that sits, helplessly, between family members. You feel that this is possibly the point.
“The Love of a Good Woman” (The Love of a Good Woman, 1998)
The frequent, somewhat silly refrain is that Munro squeezes a novel into each story. That description is more apt than usual with the long “Love of a Good Woman,” which any reader should sink into with ease. Sex! Murder! A small town! And a hold-your-breath ending in which love and death feel like equal possibilities.
“Family Furnishings” (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, 2001)
An aspiring writer (a little-noted recurring figure in Munro) grows to disdain a close family friend she once admired as a child. Only Munro could pull this off: She hides within the story’s folds a deep family secret that, when revealed, somehow ends up taking second place to a chilling awareness that the narrator has about her own nature.
“Dear Life” (Dear Life, 2012)
Possibly Munro’s final story (or memoir, depending), but don't save it for last—it is that good, and that representative of Munro’s artistic project. The story hinges on a memory that cannot be a real memory: the narrator as an infant being whisked inside the house by her mother as a neighbor approaches. What seems at first a meandering investigation becomes, quite suddenly, a fine-pointed insight into the mother-daughter relationship that anchors so much of Munro’s work, and feeds so much of its regret, determination, and affection.