Runaway by Alice Munro. Alfred A. Knopf. 352 pages. $25.
Among the many brilliant short stories by American writer Edith Wharton, one comes like a punch to the gut: Roman Fever, published in 1934. To explain why it is so powerful would entail giving away the ending. Suffice to say that once read, it is never forgotten.
It's not common to find such stories -- that hurt like a wound, that make you gasp. Not, that is, unless you read Alice Munro.
In the Canadian writer's latest collection, Runaway, wounds both subtle and profound gnaw at the characters' lives. All of the eight stories have one-word titles, which not only provide clues to their themes, but add a sense of bluntness, of irrevocability to them.
In Tricks, we are taken through the entire course of a woman's life in 33 pages. (This is another hallmark of Munro -- the ability to compress whole lifetimes, with all their attendant memories, into a few pages.) We think we are witnessing a typical love story -- meeting, heartbreak, reconciliation -- as the woman looks back on a man she met 40 years earlier. It all seems so mundane.
Robin was an independent-minded 20-something with a love of Shakes-peare. Every summer, she took a day-trip from her small town in Ontario to Stratford for a performance during the annual festival there. One matinee was all she could afford. She went alone; her sister and neighbors teased her about her literary interests. One summer, she met a man from Montenegro. He appealed to her hunger for knowledge and something outside the narrow-mindedness of her hometown. After dinner and a quiet, but passionate, farewell, they made a pact to meet again at the same place the next year.
You think you know what's coming next. But Munro rips away the reader's expectations. Then, in hindsight, one sees the clues. As Robin realizes, "Shakespeare should have prepared her." The pain of not understanding has been replaced by the affirmative -- now Robin does understand, but it doesn't help. Her realization comes 40 years too late.
Many of the protagonists in these stories are misfits of one kind or another -- women who are more curious, more adventurous, more intelligent than the people around them. Grace, in Passion, is unusually self-possessed for an 18-year-old. And the passion she finds is, in true Munro fashion, unexpected on the surface, almost predictable by the end.
Juliet is the main character in three interlocking stories -- Chance, Soon, and Silence. A classics scholar, she grows up during the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and '70s and eventually has a child of her own, whom she names Penelope. In Homer's Odyssey, Penelope is the wife of Odysseus who waits 20 years for him to return from his travels.
Here, it is Juliet who waits, Juliet who --in the course of the three stories -- regains one treasure only to lose another. And what does she learn? "You know," she says, "we always have the idea that there is this reason or that reason and we keep trying to find out reasons."
But sometimes, there are no reasons. Sometimes, despite our modern mania for therapy-speak ("finding closure"), the pain and tragedies of life have no explanation.
These stories offer no bromides, no feel-good aphorisms about growing stronger through adversity. They do, however, offer one of literature's great gifts -- making even unbearable things a little easier to bear.
Lisa Simeone is host of NPR World of Opera. Her career includes being host of cultural, news, and public affairs programs, including NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. She lives in Baltimore.