Alice Munro’s 2004 collection of short stories, Runaway, is one of those rare books I find hard to stop thinking about after reading. Comprised of eight stories—-each with simple, one-word titles—-Munro’s collection manages to cover impressive scope. In fact, not only do three of the stories share the same protagonist, two more still cover 40-plus years of a character’s life, not just a snapshot of it. As a result of this scope and Munro’s wonderful storytelling ability, the stories of Runaway manage to ask a very profound question: what determines the course of one’s life? Is it choice? Is it chance? Or, more likely, is it both?
Munro’s best example of a character whose choices yield life-shaping consequences is Juliet, the three-story protagonist of “Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence”. In “Chance”, Juliet is painted as a victim of just that: chance. On a cross-country train ride she finds herself rejecting the companionship of a fellow traveler only to find that soon after, he has committed suicide. This chance meeting leads her Eric, who ultimately becomes her partner and the father of her beloved daughter, Penelope. It is only in “Silence”, though, that Juliet’s choices begin to affect the quality of her life. Juliet and Eric raise Penelope in a home that, by design, lacks religious focus and concentrates instead on academics. As a result, Penelope finds herself metaphysically starved and proceeds to reject Juliet in early adulthood for a spiritual cult, never to be heard from again. Juliet is devastated, blaming her choices for her daughter’s desertion.
Munro, however, does not commit to “choice” as the sole determinant of her characters’ destinies; “chance”, also, plays a part. This is the case certainly for Robin, the lead character of “Tricks”. In this story that begins its 40-plus year span in the 1920s, Robin, a young woman caring for her handicapped sister in a small town, enjoys an annual play in a nearby city as one of her few diversions. After one of these outings, she finds herself attracted to a man whom she agrees to meet in the same place in one year’s time. After a year of anticipation—in a building of emotion that is articulated very authentically by Munro—Robin meets the man again, but is emphatically rejected. It is only after 40-plus years have passed, and she is in her twilight, that Robin realizes the Shakespearean twists that lead to her rejection a lifetime ago. Though not even Robin can posit whether her life would have improved or diminished had the miscommunication not occurred, this chance error clearly makes a calculable impression on Robin’s life.
The short story collection Runaway clearly demonstrates Alice Munro’s mastery of the short story form. This collection comes recommended to readers looking for something more from this oft-underappreciated form of storytelling.