Book Review: Runaway by Alice Munro

runaway Well-crafted short stories about love, guilt and betrayal

About the Book

Synopsis (courtesy of Goodreads): Alice Munro’s bestselling and rapturously acclaimed Runaway is a book of extraordinary stories about love and its infinite betrayals and surprises, from the title story about a young woman who, though she thinks she wants to, is incapable of leaving her husband, to three stories about a woman named Juliet and the emotions that complicate the lustre of her intimate relationships. In Munro’s hands, the people she writes about – women of all ages and circumstances and their friends, lovers, parents, and children – become as vivid as our own neighbours. It is her miraculous gift to make these stories as real and unforgettable as our own.

Book Facts

  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 335
  • Publication date: 2005
  • Genre: Literary, Short Stories

My Review (3.5 out of 5)

Runaway is a collection of short stories published in 2005. My review focuses on three linked stories from the collection – ‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’ – which were the inspiration for the 2016 film Julieta, which I will be reviewing separately as part of my From Page to Screen Reading challenge. Spoiler alert: Since the stories follow on from one another, it is impossible to summarise them without giving away key events from earlier stories.

Chance’ introduces us to Juliet, a rather introverted young woman, who is travelling to visit a married man, Eric Porteous, she met in a chance encounter on a train six months earlier. Eric is a fisherman who is caring for his wife paralysed as a result of a car accident. Juliet recalls the circumstances of their meeting following a tragic event which occurred on the train. At the time, her response to Eric’s advances had been confused but now, on the basis of a letter he sent her, she believes there is a chance of something more. Arriving at his house, she finds his wife has died and Eric is staying with a female friend, Christa. Against the wishes of his housekeeper, Ailo, Juliet decides to stay until he returns.

Soon’ is set several years later when Juliet has given birth to a daughter, Penelope. On this occasion she is travelling to her parents’ home. Sara, her mother, is in poor health due to heart trouble. Juliet’s father, Sam, an ex-teacher, is now running a market garden business. Juliet is perturbed to find a third person in the household – Irene – employed to help around the house and garden.   Juliet feels discomfited by Irene, who she feels treats her as if she is an ‘intruder’.   Juliet becomes unsettled by her father’s admiration for Irene and Irene’s influence within the household, wondering about the true nature of their relationship. Sara’s physical frailty makes her dependent on Sam and Irene, unwilling or unable to influence whatever is going on: ‘Irene is – he’s careful of her. She’s very valuable to us, Irene.’   Sara’s mental frailty is clear as well: “When it gets really bad for me – when it gets so bad I – you know what I think then? I think, all right. I think – Soon. Soon I’ll see Juliet.’ Heartbreakingly, Juliet turns away without reply and it is only later that she regrets her failure to respond.

Silence’ moves us on almost twenty years. Juliet is again travelling, this time to see her daughter, Penelope, who has been staying on an island retreat for six months. However, when she gets there, Juliet is told her daughter has left and the retreat leader is either unable or unwilling to reveal her whereabouts.   Juliet reflects on what might have caused this breach. She recalls the circumstances of Penelope’s father’s death, which took place while Penelope was at a summer camp. Juliet never revealed the full facts to her daughter – their argument and its causes and his subsequent death in a storm.   Aside from a few birthday cards sent (she presumes by Penelope) on her daughter’s birthday, Juliet hears nothing further from her. However, one day many years later, Juliet runs into one of Penelope’s childhood friends and learns from her that Penelope is living in northern Canada with her five children.

‘She keeps on hoping for a word from Penelope, but not in a strenuous way. She hopes as people who know better hope for underserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort.’

Alice Munro is undoubtedly a talented writer and I admired the way these stories were crafted without actually loving them. They have a rather bleak, depressing quality. I also found Juliet a difficult character to empathise or engage with. So much of what happened seemed to stem from her failure to understand and respond to the needs of those around her, such as her daughter, and her guilt at this inaction never provoked her to remedy her omissions.

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In three words: Insightful, poignant, introspective

Try something similar…In A German Pension: 13 Stories by Katherine Mansfield

munroAbout the Author

Alice Munro is a Canadian short-story writer who is widely considered one of the world’s premier fiction writers. Munro is a three-time winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Award for fiction. Her stories focus on human relationships looked at through the lens of daily life. She has thus been referred to as “the Canadian Chekhov”. She is the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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