WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
By Alice Munro
New York: Penguin Books, 1996Dover Thrift Editions, 1992
ISBN # 0-14-024158-2
Comments by Bob Corbett
This book is generally described as a book of short stories. There is a sense in which this is true. Each story is a separate tale. Yet all of them are about the same person, Rose. However, there is a great deal of informational carry over from one story to another, whereas in most collections of short stories I have read one doesn’t have that. Each story stands solely on its own. However, we learn a great deal about Rose, from her very young days as a child to late in her life, and there is a consistency throughout. Thus each story carries with it the whole baggage of the stories that have gone before. They each help share our knowledge and understanding of Rose, and prepare the way for understanding the next story we are reading, adding a great deal to our ability to appreciate it. I don’t have any complaints with this phenomenon, but I wanted to note that to call this a collection of short stories seems a bit misleading; however I don’t know what other term one might use.
This story seems to me more like a glimpse into the lives of some very sad people. We hear of the childhood of Rose and Brian, living with their father and his second wife, Flo. The title comes from the nature of a beating, which is perhaps too strong a word for the time of the story, seemingly about the 1960s, but would be child abuse today.
The dad runs a poor business doing furniture repair and rehabilitation. Flo oversees a tiny store with food stuffs. It is in eastern Canada.
We hear the reasons why he tends to give Rose these periodic beatings, which normally start with her having some sort of fuss with her step-mother who then calls in the dad for the beating. The story is being told years later when Rose has sort of gotten her revenge on her step-mother, and seemingly her father is no longer alive.
The story just rings so true of life as I recall it, being a child at a very similar time as Rose, and also living in a lower-middle class life. It’s not an intricate or special plot, rather, a very powerful retelling of life as it was in so many homes of that period of time.
This is the story of Rose’s younger days in elementary school before war-time prosperity began to change things. They were poor; the school was quite weak under an incompetent and disinterested teacher. The story centers on Rose’s infatuation with an older girl student, but it’s much more. The story is about the “tone” of the school and the community in the late 1930s to the mid-war years.
HALF A GRAPEFRUIT
Rose begins with a story from her new high school. This was the period of the last days of her father’s life and he was quite ill. They are planning to take him to the hospital and a friend comes over to drive him. Flo tells Rose some stories of her younger days and sort of pretends that she doesn’t approve of Rose’s scholarly ways, but maybe it’s not really pretense.
Rose is taking her first trip to Toronto and her mother tells her horror stories of young girls being taken advantage of, being forced into being a sex slave and such. She definitely frightens Rose. Then on the train an elderly man sits next to her, and pretending to be asleep, begins to caress her legs under his newspaper. She is sort of torn between horror and curiosity and does nothing. Upon arrival he rushes off.
THE BEGGAR MAID
Rose has won an academic scholarship and goes off to a large city to study. She meets Patrick Blatchford, a very scholarly boy and they fall in love. It turned out that he was very rich and that his father, especially, didn’t approve of Patrick’s scholarly ways but wanted him to go into his business.
He and Rose are from different universes, but iron out ways of getting along. She is unsure of herself and needs him to lean on. He is sure of himself in his work and scholarship, but very weak on social graces and seems deeply in love with her, but not quite as much as he is with himself.
Eventually they marry, but after 10 years of marriage separate and she finally goes on to a successful career as a TV personality. However, on seeing him, some 9 years later, in an airport, she is forced to realize her own frailty.
I think this was the most interesting and powerful of the stories to this point in the book.
I thought this was one of the better stories of the collection. Rose and Patrick occasionally go to parties and such at the home of her friend, Joycelyn and her husband Clifford. At a party one night Clifford comes on to Rose and they begin a “sort of” affair. That is, there is much more TRYING to have an affair than having one. She gets very frustrated with him and the affair, and eventually it goes away. Later, after she has left Patrick and is living on her own she often visits with Joycelyn and Clifford and one evening, after the three of them were drinking, they actually do have a threesome experience which Rose enjoyed.
The story seemed especially well-written and was longer than most others.
And, just as I found Mischief one of the best stories, I think Providence was the weakest of the collection. It is about her would-be relationship with another married man, Tom. They meet now and again, but never can really be much alone and finally plan to meet in another town. This is a period when Anna, her young daughter is staying with her. First Anna is ill one occasion when Rose and Tom have planned a meeting out of town. Then, when they arrange another meeting snow ruins it. Even the title, Providence, was strange. I would think that would be more a title for something that turns out well, and this seems just the opposite.
I found this story to also be one of the weaker in the collection. Rose goes to a party of people at the local college where she’s working part-time and meets Simon, a professor at the school. They go off together after the party and have sex and Simon treats her extremely well, helping her to build a garden in the following days, and Rose thinks she is really in love. All of a sudden Simon simply disappears. Rose can’t or won’t try to reach him and she’s so depressed she goes off, actually moving to the west coast to take a job in acting for TV.
The story was, for me, just too implausible. The time she knew Simon was so short, the communications she reports too thin to make the story one I could take seriously.
Rose goes back home to take care of her mother. Her mother doesn’t even know her and believes she is someone who has been hired to care for her. Rose gently tries, and succeeds, in getting her mother to agree to enter a full care center. Once she is there an event occurs which causes her mother to recognize Rose and they do have some moments of connection and recognition, but in the main her mother is lost and her world of memories gone.
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Rose was back home in the small village where she grew up and she was there to get her mother settled in a long-term care hospital. She has many memories of people she knew as a child, their impact on her and the community, and she compares her life with theirs. She realizes how much the life of her home town is sort of inside her and has, in so many ways, shaped her own life.
I sort of expected more of this story than I got. I came to it knowing it was the last story of the volume and the title story. The title of the story is a sort of philosophical story and I guess I was excepting a sort of “wrap-up” with some special punch.
It just wasn’t that, but it was a touching and interesting story in itself. It was Rose, back home and remembering much of her youth. This will clearly be a break with the town; her mother is now in the home and at the end of her life. Rose is likely to seldom be back to the village, perhaps not even until her mother’s funeral. Thus it was so much the story that failed; perhaps my expectations of this last story were a bit too much to put onto the shoulders of Alice Munro.