Family Furnishings

Selected Stories, 1995-2014

By Alice Munro

Alfred A. Knopf. 640 pp. $30

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Reviewed by Mike Fischer


In "Passion," one of the two dozen miracles in

Family Furnishings

, Grace is young and poor and engaged to a man she doesn't love. Neil is an unhappily married doctor who drinks too much.

You know the strange but frighteningly real passion that flares between these two won't end well. But numerous stories in this collection underscore why women like Grace nevertheless leap into the unknown.

Like Munro herself, who married up when young rather than returning to her hardscrabble roots, many of them are not only poor but also bright, in communities that punish women for being "smart." But the grass never turns out to be quite as green as it looks.

Here's Pauline, the morning after leaving her husband and two small girls in "The Children Stay," for a passion she knows won't last: "A fluid choice, the choice of fantasy, is poured out on the ground and instantly hardens; it has taken its undeniable shape."

That's a devastating sentence, but no more so than these two from "Runaway," in which a young wife tries and fails to escape an abusive husband: "But after awhile all outings came to be seen as a waste of time and money. They were what people did before they understood the realities of their lives."

In the Jamesian "The Love of a Good Woman," the story's key character - a middle-aged woman tending a diseased and dying one - must decide whether her patient's lurid tales of sexual perversity and murder are true or, rather, a particularly graphic manifestation of the darkness within all of us.

Similar accommodations enable an improbable union between the mismatched pair in "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" - while allowing marriage to last in "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," as a philanderer lovingly enables his dementia-afflicted wife's new attachment, to another resident in her assisted living facility.

The peace we make with our past is most fully and movingly displayed in the great, semiautobiographical piece that gave this collection its title, in which a Munro-like narrator pays homage to Alfrida, her father's cousin. Bright and unconventional, Alfrida is a journalist who remains within the Ontario world she and Munro share. Meanwhile, the young and cocky narrator discovers her vocation as a writer and prepares for a Joycean flight.

But Munro grew instead into a writer who slowly fashioned a house of fiction large enough for both a room of her own and all of her family furnishings - ensuring that she herself had space to maneuver while others still had plenty of space to stretch out and live. Those others include us, her very lucky readers.

Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee writer and lawyer. His review appeared originally in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.