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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents

Synopsis

Ten superb new stories by one of our most beloved and admired writers—the winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize.

In the first story a young wife and mother receives release from the unbearable pain of losing her three children from a most surprising source. In another, a young woman, in the aftermath of an unusual and humiliating seduction, reacts in a clever if less-than-admirable fashion. Other stories uncover the “deep-holes” in a marriage, the unsuspected cruelty of children, and how a boy’s disfigured face provides both the good things in his life and the bad. And in the long title story, we accompany Sophia Kovalevsky—a late-nineteenth-century Russian émigré and mathematician—on a winter journey that takes her from the Riviera, where she visits her lover, to Paris, Germany, and, Denmark, where she has a fateful meeting with a local doctor, and finally to Sweden, where she teaches at the only university in Europe willing to employ a female mathematician.

With clarity and ease, Alice Munro once again renders complex, difficult events and emotions into stories that shed light on the unpredictable ways in which men and women accommodate and often transcend what happens in their lives.

Too Much Happiness is a compelling, provocative—even daring—collection.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Too Much Happiness

Many persons who have not studied mathematics confuse it
with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science.
Actually, however, this science requires great fantasy.

—Sophia Kovalevsky

i

On the first day of January, in the year 1891, a small woman and a large man are walking in the Old Cemetery, in Genoa. Both
of them are around forty years old. The woman has a childishly large head, with a thicket of dark curls, and her expression is eager, faintly pleading. Her face has begun to look worn. The man is immense. He weighs 285 pounds, distributed over a large frame, and being Russian, he is often referred to as a bear, also as a Cossack. At present he is crouching over tombstones and writing in his notebook, collecting inscriptions and puzzling over abbreviations not immediately clear to him, though he speaks Russian, French, English, Italian and has an understanding of classical and medieval Latin. His knowledge is as expansive as his physique, and though his speciality is governmental law, he is capable of lecturing on the growth of contemporary political institutions in America, the peculiarities of society in Russia and the West, and the laws and practices of ancient empires. But he is not a pedant. He is witty and popular, at ease on various levels, and able to live a most comfortable life, due to his properties near Kharkov. He has, however, been forbidden to hold an academic post in Russia, because of being a Liberal.

His name suits him. Maksim. Maksim Maksimovich Kovalevsky.

The woman with him is also a Kovalevsky. She was married to a distant cousin of his, but is now a widow.

She speaks to him teasingly.

“You know that one of us will die,” she says. “One of us will die this year.”

Only half listening, he asks her, Why is that?

“Because we have gone walking in a graveyard on the first day of the New Year.”

“Indeed.”

“There are still a few things you don’t know,” she says in her pert but anxious way. “I knew that before I was eight years old.”

“Girls spend more time with kitchen maids and boys in the

stables—I suppose that is why.”

“Boys in the stables do not hear about death?”

“Not so much. Concentration is on other things.”

There is snow that day but it is soft. They leave melted, black footprints where they’ve walked.



She met him for the first time in 1888. He had come to Stockholm to advise on the foundation of a school of social sciences. Their shared nationality, going so far as a shared family name, would have thrown them together even if there was no particular attraction. She would have had a responsibility to entertain and generally take care of a fellow Liberal, unwelcome at home.

But that turned out to be no duty at all. They flew at each other as if they had indeed been long-lost relatives. A torrent of jokes and questions followed, an immediate understanding, a rich gabble of Russian, as if the languages of Western Europe had been flimsy formal cages in which they had been too long confined, or paltry substitutes for true human speech. Their behavior, as well, soon overflowed the proprieties of Stockholm.

He stayed late at her apartment. She went alone to lunch with him at his hotel. When he hurt his leg in a mishap on the ice, she helped him with the soaking and dressing and, what was more, she told people about it. She was so sure of herself then, and especially sure of him. She wrote a description of him to a friend, borrowing from De Musset.

He is very joyful, and at the same time very gloomy—
Disagreeable neighbor, excellent comrade—
Extremely light-minded, and yet very affected—
Indignantly naïve, nevertheless very blasé—
Terribly sincere, and at the same time very sly.


And at the end she wrote, “A real Russian, he is, into the bargain.”

Fat Maksim, she called him then.

“I have never been so tempted to write romances, as when with Fat Maksim.”

And “He takes up too much room, on the divan and in one’s mind. It is simply impossible for me, in his presence, to think of
anything but him.”

This was at the very time when she should have been working day and night, preparing her submission for the Bordin Prize. “I am neglecting not only my Functions but my Elliptic Integrals and my Rigid Body,” she joked to her fellow mathematician, Mittag-Leffler, who persuaded Maksim that it was time to go and deliver lectures in Uppsala for a while. She tore herself from thoughts of him, from daydreams, back to the movement of rigid bodies and the solution of the so-called mermaid problem by the use of theta functions with two independent variables. She worked desperately but happily, because he was still in the back of her mind. When he returned she was worn out but triumphant. Two triumphs—her paper ready for its last polishing and anonymous submission; her lover growling but cheerful, eagerly returned from his banishment and giving every indication, as she thought, that he intended to make her the woman of his life.

The Bordin Prize was what spoiled them. So Sophia believed. She herself was taken in by it at first, dazzled by all the chandeliers
and champagne. The compliments quite dizzying, the marvelling and the hand kissing spread thick on top of certain inconvenient but immutable facts. The fact that they would never grant her a job worthy of her gift, that she would be lucky indeed to find herself teaching in a provincial girls’ high school. While she was basking Maksim decamped. Never a word about the real reason, of course—just the papers he had to write, his need for the peace and quiet of Beaulieu.


He had felt himself ignored. A man who was not used to being ignored, who had probably never been in any salon, at any reception, since he was a grown man, where that had been the case. And it wasn’t so much the case in Paris either. It wasn’t
that he was invisible there, in Sonya’s limelight, as that he was the usual. A man of solid worth and negotiable reputation, with
a certain bulk of frame and intellect, together with a lightness of wit, an adroit masculine charm. While she was an utter novelty,
a delightful freak, the woman of mathematical gifts and female timidity, quite charming, yet with a mind most unconventionally
furnished, under her curls.

He wrote his cold and sulky apologies from Beaulieu, refusing her offer to visit once her flurry was over. He had a lady staying with him, he said, whom he could not possibly present to her. This lady was in distress and needed his attention at the moment. Sonya should make her way back to Sweden, he said; she should be happy where her friends were waiting for her. Her students would have need of her and so would her little daughter. (A jab there, a suggestion familiar to her, of faulty motherhood?)

And at the end of his letter one terrible sentence.

“If I loved you I would have written differently.”


The end of everything. Back from Paris with her prize and her freaky glittery fame, back to her friends who suddenly meant no more than a snap of her fingers to her. Back to the students who meant something more, but only when she stood before them transformed into her mathematical self, which was oddly still accessible. And back to her supposedly neglected but devastatingly
merry little Fufu.

Everything in Stockholm reminded her.

She sat in the same room, with the furniture brought at such foolish expense across the Baltic Sea. The same divan in front of her that had recently, gallantly, supported his bulk. And hers in addition when he skillfully gathered her into his arms. In spite of his size he was never clumsy in lovemaking.

This same red damask, on which distinguished and undistinguished guests had sat in her old lost home. Maybe Fyodor Dostoyevsky had sat there in his lamentable nervous state, dazzled by Sophia’s sister Aniuta. And certainly Sophia herself as her mother’s unsatisfactory child, displeasing as usual.

The same old cabinet brought also from her home at Pali - bino, with the portraits of her grandparents set into it, painted
on porcelain. The Shubert grandparents. No comfort there. He in uniform, she in a ball gown, displaying absurd self-satisfaction.
They had got what they wanted, Sophia supposed, and had only contempt for those not so conniving or so lucky.

“Did you know I’m part German?” she had said to Maksim.

“Of course. How else could you be such a prodigy of industry? And have your head filled with mythical numbers?”

If I loved you.

Fufu brought her jam on a plate, asked her to play a child’s card game.
“Leave me alone. Can’t you leave me alone?”

Later she wiped the tears out of her eyes and begged the child’s pardon.

Table of Contents

Dimensions

Fiction

Wenlock Edge

Deep-Holes

Free Radicals

Face

Some Women

Child’s Play

Wood

Too Much Happiness

Acknowledgments
Alice Munro

About Alice Munro

Alice Munro - Too Much Happiness

Photo © Derek Shapton

Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published thirteen collections of stories and a novel. During her distinguished career she has been the recipient of many awards, including two Giller Prizes, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. In 2013 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, Granta, and many other publications, and her collections have been translated into thirteen languages. She lives in Port Hope, Canada, on Lake Ontario.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Filled with subtle and far-reaching thematic reverberations. . . . [Munro has] an empathy so pitch-perfect. . . . You [are] drawn deftly into another world.” —The New York Times Book Review

"Profound and beautiful.” —Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Alice Munro has done it again. . . . [She] keeps getting better. . . . Her brush strokes are fine, her vision encompasses humanity from its most generous to its most corrupt, and the effect is nothing short of masterful.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Richly detailed and dense with psychological observation. . . . Munro exhibit[s] a remarkable gift for transforming the seemingly artless into art . . . [She] concentrate[s] upon provincial, even backcountry lives, in tales of domestic tragicomedy that seem to open up, as if by magic, into wider, deeper, vaster dimensions.” —Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books
 
“A perfect 10. . . . With this collection of surprising short stories, Munro once again displays the fertility of her imagination and her craftsmanship as a writer.” —USA Today
 
“Masterly. . . . [A] remarkable new book.” —The Los Angeles Times
 
“Daring and unpredictable. . . . Reading Munro is an intensely personal experience. Her focus is so clear and her style so precise. . . . Each [story is] dramatically and subtly different.” —The Miami Herald
 
“A brand-new collection of short stories from Alice Munro—winner of a Man Booker Prize—is always cause for celebration, and Too Much Happiness doesn’t disappoint. It dazzles. The 10 spare, lovely tales are . . . brimming with emotion and memorable characters. . . . Munro’s are stories that linger long after you turn the last page.” —Entertainment Weekly, Grade A
 
“Finely, even ingeniously, crafted. . . . Deliver[ed] with instinctive acuity.” —The Seattle Times
 
“Rich. . . . Truthful, in the deepest sense of the word. . . . Reading an Alice Munro short story is like sinking into a reverie. She expertly captures the shadings and byways of associative thought. . . . [Munro] will surely be remembered as the writer who took the short story to the depth of what short fiction can plumb.” —The Kansas City Star, Best 100 Books of 2009
 
“Rich and satisfying. . . . A commanding collection and one of her strongest. . . . Short fiction of this caliber should be on everyone’s reading list. Munro’s stories are accessible; she simply writes about life. . . . Honest, intuitive storytelling that gives the short story a good name.” —Chicago Sun-Times
 
“There's never too much happiness in a Munro collection, just sentence after sentence to die for.” —Louisville Courier-Journal
 
“[Munro is] universally acknowledged as one of the greatest short-story writers of our time. . . . [Her] work [is] at such a high level. . . . These stories are extraordinary, ample with the shrewdness and empathy that we have come to take for granted in Munro. . . . Her most distinguishing characteristic as a writer is . . . her extraordinary intimacy with her characters.” —The New Republic
 
“Coherent and compelling. . . . Munro manages to turn the sentimental into the existential.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Stunning. . . . An unexpected gift. . . . Here we have 10 perfectly honed pieces, each a study of the human psyche in hard-to-imagine circumstances that Munro presents, seemingly effortlessly, in an economy of words and sentences.” —The Buffalo News
 
“As always in her distinctive stories, Alice Murno’s style is vivid, her attention tireless, her curiosity omnivorous, and her sentences drawn from the freshest of springs.” —The Washington Post
 
“If there’s a better short story writer working today than Alice Munro, I haven’t read her. In story after story, Munro manages to compress whole lives and emotional arcs into 20 or so shapely pages, long enough to engage us in their world but short enough to absorb in a single sitting or commute. Her prose is spare without feeling rushed or cryptic, at once lucid and subtle.” —Heller McAlpin, The Christian Science Monitor
 
“I sit still for Alice Munro’s expository passages every time. She lays down such seemingly ordinary but useful sentences, one after another after another. . . . I stay to marvel. . . . Is there anyone writing short fiction today in English who has more authority?” —Alan Cheuse, NPR
 
“Beautiful. . . . With great insights into human nature.” —The Grand Rapids Press
 
“All varying degrees of excellent. . . . A work of supreme observational power, employing Munro’s deft, controlled sentences in the service of essaying characters who don’t realize they’re living their lives on the brink until revelation rushes over them.” —The A.V. Club
 
“Another piercing collection. . . . It’s a testament to Munro’s mastery that she can make the lurid sing with nuance and explicability. . . . Her ear for dialogue is unerring. . . . Whatever format you favor in storytelling, go ahead and enter Too Much Happiness.  It will carry you safely through the gates, and no doubt send you looking for other castles constructed by the stunning Alice Munro.” —The Plain Dealer
 
“Shows Munro’s skills at their best.” —The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
“Outstanding. . . . [Munro] writes concise descriptions that bring characters and settings to life. . . . [and] throws in observations that serve as nuggets of wisdom.” —The Wichita Eagle
 
“Consistently engrossing . . . Thoughtfully wrought. . . . [The] material is given piercing clarity by the resolute simplicity and restraint of Ms. Munro’s prose. . . . She can raise hackles on the back of your neck with a precisely phrased unadorned verb or noun. . . . The Munro magic is showcased brilliantly.” —The Washington Times
 
“The unanticipated is in full force here, fresh and exciting. Munro seems to say that mundane lives constructed of order and routine are still governed by random acts. She hides human complexity in the ordinary until it surfaces in unimagined ways.” —The Providence Journal
 
“As poignant [and] chilling as they come. . . . Why [Munro] is rightly regarded as a master of the form is her deliberate, suspenseful layering of characters and circumstances. . . . Every story in Too Much Happiness is, in a sense, a life story. . . . It’s as if the characters are reading along with these mini life lessons, emerging with enviable wisdom and perspective.” —The L Magazine
 
 
“Munro is the master of the inevitable surprise. . . . [She] has an uncanny ability to take us inside a character’s mind.” —The St. Petersburg Times
 
“Few writers can match the clarity and immediacy of Munro’s descriptions whether she is portraying a subsiding marriage, a treacherous childhood, or the erotic and intellectual sojourn of a 19th century Russian mathematician.” — The Boston Globe
 
“These ten short stories cement the capstone on what fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood has described as Munro’s ascent to ‘international literary sainthood’. . . . The title story . . . is, in length and scope, Munro’s most ambitious story to date. . . . May this house of hers, and its autumnal gardens, continue to be harvested to glorious effect.” —The Oregonian
 
“Intrigue and manipulation fill the vividly drawn stories in this collection.” —The Sacramento Bee
 
“More occurs in Munro’s short stories than in most novels. . . . The pieces here . . . are thrilling permutations of her recurring themes: love, regret, the re-framing of one’s own personal narrative over time.” —The New York Post
 
“More than virtually anyone else’s, Alice Munro’s stories unfold in surprising ways that nonetheless seem perfectly right. They are marvels of unhurried compression in which precision looks casual, in which everything is clearly in its place, though no one else might think to put it exactly thus.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

Praise from fellow writers:

“Her work felt revolutionary when I came to it, and it still does.” —Jhumpa Lahiri

“She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.” —Jonthan Franzen

“The authority she brings to the page is just lovely.” —Elizabeth Strout

“She’s the most savage writer I’ve ever read, also the most tender, the most honest, the most perceptive.” —Jeffery Eugenides

“Alice Munro can move characters through time in a way that no other writer can.”—Julian Barnes

“She is a short-story writer who…reimagined what a story can do.” —Loorie Moore

“There’s probably no one alive who’s better at the craft of the short story.” —Jim Shepard

“A true master of the form.” —Salman Rushdie

“A wonderful writer.” —Joyce Carol Oates

Awards

WINNER 2009 Man Booker International Prize
WINNER 2013 Nobel Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009.

About the Guide

In these ten stories, Munro extends and deepens her vision of the mysterious and sometimes devastating effect of the bonds between people—friends, lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children, even strangers. Moving from the familiar territory of Canadian villages and towns to the cities of late nineteenth-century Europe for the title story, she takes her readers into the lives and minds of women from various walks of life, as well as into the minds of several men—one whose life has been shaped by a disfiguring birthmark, two who have murdered family members, one who has an unusual gift for manipulating younger women. Surprising, often disturbing, always psychologically acute, these stories are a gift of wisdom and clarity from one of the genre’s greatest masters.

About the Author

Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published thirteen collections of stories as well as a novel, Lives of Girls and Women, and two volumes of Selected Stories. During her distinguished career she has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including three of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and two of its Giller Prizes, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Lannan Literary Award, England’s W. H. Smith Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. In 2013 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, Granta, and other publications, and her collections have been translated into thirteen languages. She lives in Clinton, Ontario, near Lake Huron. 

Discussion Guides

1. Dimensions
As in her earlier story “Runaway,” Munro examines the effects of the psychological domination of one person by another. Why does Doree visit her husband in jail? Lloyd’s letters are a central part of the story: why does his notion that he has seen the children in another “dimension” (page 29) bring a kind of comfort to Doree? Does her thought that Lloyd, “of all people, might be the person she should be with now” (page 30) seem sensible, or dangerous? When she is on her way to the prison once again, Doree miraculously resuscitates a young man: how does this act connect to the title, and what does the final scene suggest about her future?

2. Fiction
From whose point of view is this story told, and how does this shape our understanding of events? Edie has “a mind that plods inexorably from one cliché or foolishness to the next . . .” (pages 40–41). How might it be possible for Jon to prefer Edie to Joyce? In part two, how does Joyce feel when she reads about herself in Christie’s story? What is revealed by the child’s perspective? What does Joyce learn about herself that she hadn’t known, or had forgotten? Is it fitting that Christie doesn’t remember Joyce?

3. Wenlock Edge
Hearing Nina’s life story, the narrator says, “Her life made me feel like a simpleton” (page 72). Does this explain the narrator’s willingness to comply with Mr. Purvis’s requests? Why do you think Munro has chosen “On Wenlock Edge” (from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad) for the narrator to read to Mr. Purvis? How are the narrator’s feelings about literature, poetry, and the university library changed by her encounters with Nina and Mr. Purvis? Why does she send Ernie’s address to Mr. Purvis, and what does she gain by doing so? What details or events are most troubling in this story, and why?

4. Deep-Holes
As the family picnic begins, Sally finds herself in a dangerous place, “nearly crying with exhaustion and alarm and some familiar sort of seeping rage” (page 96). How would you describe Sally’s husband, and her marriage? Why does Kent leave home and refuse contact with his family? Why does he choose to live as he does (pages 109–17)? What effect does her meeting with Kent have upon Sally (pages 116–17)? What does the story’s title signify?

5. Free Radicals
Like “Dimensions,” this story presents an intimate view of someone who is capable of murdering his family. But it’s also a story about ordinary mortality: Nita’s husband has died of a heart attack, and she is suffering from liver cancer and may not have long to live. How does Nita cope with the idea of her own impending death? What story does the young man tell Nita when he shows her the photograph (pages 129–32), and what story does Nita tell him in return (pages 134–36)? What is the effect of this reciprocal response on Nita’s part? Compare this story’s ending with that of “Dimensions.”

6. Face
What is the web of familial and extrafamilial relations that determines the plot of this story? Discuss how the narrator and his friend Nancy create their own freedom and happiness within close range of a deeply unhappy ménage à trois. Who is the cause of the rupture that occurs on pages 155–57? Are Nancy’s attempts to mirror the flawed face of the narrator—first by painting, later by cutting—the clearest expressions of love he experiences in his lifetime? The narrator decides to settle in his childhood home because “in your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places” (page 164). Why is this insight so profound? He goes on to suggest that the past is irreversible; do you agree or disagree?

7. Some Women
Who are the women referred to in the title? The story is narrated from a young girl’s
point of view. What does she understand—--and what does she not understand—--about what is going on in Mrs. Crozier’s house (page 188)? Who is the main actor in the story, the one who is trying hardest to manipulate others? What is the motive for this manipulation?

8. Child’s Play
The story opens with references to an event that is not yet explained. Why does Munro frame the story in this way? Explaining why she feels “persecuted” by Verna, Marlene says, “Only adults would be so stupid as to believe she had no power. A power, moreover, that was specifically directed at me” (page 204, 201). How does this idea of power ricochet through the story? Why does Marlene become an anthropologist, and why does she shun intimacy (pages 211, 2–12)? What does Charlene do to Marlene in asking her to go in search of Father Hofstrader? Compare this story with “Face,” with which it shares the idea that the action of a moment can be the determining event in a person’s life.

9. Wood
Why is Roy obsessed with cutting wood, an interest which is “private but not secret” (page 226)?  How has Lea’s illness affected their marriage? What is being repressed or unexpressed by Roy in this story? What is the transformation that takes place in Lea? What is the loss referred to at the bottom of page 245, and what does Roy mean when he retrieves from his mind the phrase, “the Deserted Forest” (page 246)?

10. Too Much Happiness
Outwardly this story diverges from the rest, but what concerns or questions connect it with others? What is the relationship between Sophia’s love for Maksim, her ideas about womanhood, and her joy in mathematical thought? Are they in conflict? How does Munro present female intellectual ambition and its frustrations, even its tragedy? What do you think is meant by Sophia’s last words, “too much happiness” (page 302)?

11. General questions

  1. In several of these stories, Munro sets out the dynamics of love and hate, desire and frustration in marriages, but does not interpret for the reader the actions that result. There is no facile sign-posting of causes and effects. In what stories do you find Munro’s presentation of the unstated mood or tensions of a marriage most effective?    

  2. Discuss the following observation on Too Much Happiness by Leah Hager Cohen: “The collection’s ten stories take on some sensational subjects. In fact, a quick tally yields all the elements of pulp fiction: violence, adultery, extreme cruelty, duplicity, theft, suicide, murder. But while in pulp fiction the emotional climax coincides with the height of external drama, a Munro story works according to a different scheme. Here the nominally momentous event is little more than an anteroom to an echo chamber filled with subtle and far-reaching thematic reverberations” (The New York Times Book Review, 27 November  27, 2009).
  3. In “Fiction,” Joyce hasn’t yet read Christie’s book, but thinks: “How  Aare wWe to lLive is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside” (page 52). Is this an ironic comment on Munro’s own work, reflecting the general opinion of short stories as opposed to the novel? How do these stories prove that opinion misguided?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

A.  E. Housman, The A Shropshire Lad; John McGahern, All Will Be Well; Ian McEwan, Atonement;; Lorrie Moore, A Gate at tThe Stairs; Vladimir Nabokov, “Signs and Symbols”; Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Iis Hard to Find”; Carol Shields, Unless; Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

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