Dear Life impresses with frank realism, dark themes

A young woman goes to teach at a school for children with tuberculosis and ends up falling in love with the director. But before they can marry, she is sent packing on the next available train to Toronto.

A woman recounts the events leading up to the drowning of her older sister. A retired high school teacher introduces her new friend to her husband, who turns out to be the friend’s former lover.

All of these stories make up Canadian writer Alice Munro’s newest volume of short stories, Dear Life. These portraits of small-town life, mostly set in little towns around Munro’s hometown of Lake Huron, Canada, paint intimate portraits of characters whose lives are forever changed by small actions, both within and beyond their control.

Peppered with characters both strong and weak, intelligent and dim-witted, Dear Life brings Canada’s landscape to life. In the end, all must contend and accept changes in their lives, changes that forever alter their understandings of who they are.

Munro’s writing is patient and detailed. Each story, though only encompassing a certain period in a character’s life, speaks volumes about what has come before and what will come after.

“Gravel,” one of the strongest stories in the collection, recounts the series of events that led to the drowning of the narrator’s older sister. Munro, however, composes the story  to reveal the circumstances that drove the narrator’s mother to leave her husband and have an affair with an irresponsible actor in a trailer, all of which contribute to the unhappiness of the narrator’s sister.

Munro reveals through her stories that it isn’t just the life-changing moments that define who we are — it is our collective decisions that propel us forward on our unique trajectory. The lingering questions the speaker must contend with years later, as she thinks about her sister’s death, are just as important to her the loss itself.

Dear Life paints life as a complicated web where things become difficult, messy and sometimes unbearable. Within these stories, the reader experiences characters’ trials and tribulations, forming his or her own connection to the events. Though life in Canada during the Great Depression might not be familiar to us, the agony of financial struggle is a definite reality.

The connections readers establish with the characters go beyond fiction and reality because these characters mirror our own struggles and worries, albeit within a different environment.

These stories are not just about the moments that change lives. They also fit together to create a web of interconnected humanity, which is humanity depicted through an assortment of individuals who might not live lives of glamour and action, but are still profoundly affected by the smallest changes in their circumstances.

Dear Life extends that interconnectedness not only across space, but also time as well. The stories take place around Lake Huron during the Great Depression, the 1970s and in between. By blurring temporal lines, Munro shows how the difficulties of life span generations. Lake Huron might have gone through aesthetic changes throughout the years, but in the end, the people who populate that region must still contend with the same difficulties as previous generations.

Munro’s stories, however, are not in the same sentimental, saccharine vein as Nicholas Sparks novels or the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. They are mature works that seriously look at class struggle, poverty, sex and education. Though the stories that make up Dear Life focus on the small moments, they continuously speak about these larger issues.

Still, though Munro’s stories contain plenty of surprises and poignant changes, her detailed depictions of the lives of ordinary people — most of them poor and living during the Great Depression — will prove challenging to readers that expect rapidly moving plotlines and dramatic stream of consciousness. Munro’s stories take a much slower pace than most books that top the best seller charts, and involve subjects that are less than romantic. For people who expect neat, optimistic endings to their stories, Dear Life will not have much to offer.

But for people who want to read stories that challenge simplistic notions of life and reflect personal difficulties, Munro’s stories are worth the time invested. In their own way, Munro’s lethargic, quiet portraits of small-town life are filled with just as much upheavals, loss and redemption as the most dramatic young adult novel.

The characters in the stories that make up Dear Life are our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Though many of Munro’s characters, if passed on the street, would be regarded as average, they are people whose lives are profoundly affected by single moments and choices. Munro’s characters speak to us because they mirror ourselves and our fears of the choices we make in our lives.

What readers will come away with after reading Dear Life will vary. But they will all share one thing: an understanding that life will progress, whether we want it to or not.

The only way to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of life is to embrace change, to try to understand as much as we can and move forward. Some characters in Dear Life do that, and some do not. But it is their stories that will allow readers to look back on their own lives and find the will to push on forward.