I went about this all wrong.
I saw the movie before I read the book. Lying on the couch with my mother one cold spring night, flipping lazily through the movies-on-demand like a months-old Marie Claire, we happened upon a film called Hateship Loveship. Tiny in its scope—a small town, an old house, an odd woman—but not in its emotional reach, it wasn’t perfect. Full of odd and seemingly unintentional anachronisms, clunky moments when we might have decided to turn our attention elsewhere. iPhones cohabitate with dialogue that would be more at home in the mouth of a prairie woman. Long shots of kitschy motels at night, then in walks a woman who seems to have stepped out of Soho. But there was something about it, quiet and unassuming and determined, that gripped us (these adjectives, it should be noted, could also describe the lead character, Johanna Parry). And it stuck with us for days, my mother and me. We would check in with each other by text, wondering again who had felt what and why. Did that teenager really want to hurt the quiet woman who cared for her, played to perfection by one Kristen Wiig? Was our protagonist deeply stunted or simply unusual? Was there a protagonist at all? And the sex scenes, two of them in total, did what I think sex scenes are meant to do: get at the massive, mewing void in all of us, the one we are trying to fill or forget when we stand naked before someone else.
As it turns out, this film was based on a story. An Alice Munro story with an extended title—or wait, the movie had a beshortened title—“Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” I read it in bed, underlining passages with a Sharpie until it became clear there was nothing that I wouldn’t underline, and I quit on page thirteen. I watched my boyfriend watch a documentary about North Korea and felt satisfied by the secret relationship I was engaged in with Johanna, Saskatchewan, and Alice Munro herself.
The story had the same qualities as the film—switching subtly but sharply between perspectives, assigning a quiet grace to a character whom you would certainly ignore at the supermarket, creating specificity in a town that could be anywhere. But it had something else, too. An angry bite, a sense that everyone is doing their best and it isn’t good enough, that we are forced to hide behind faces, plain or beautiful, that don’t at all reflect who we are but do determine how the world will engage us. (“The station agent often tried a little teasing with women, especially the plain ones who seemed to appreciate it.”) And then, a surprise ending: a suggestion that love can save us, or that choosing love is the start to something better.
I waited too long.
I came to Alice Munro after her Nobel Prize win, like a girl discovering Maroon 5 circa 2014 and deciding they are an indie band. Because, new as I am to her, and sure as we all are that she is the queen of her form, I still feel that Alice Munro is mine. I am the perfect audience for her brand of quiet, seething feminism. I feel her pain when, inhabiting the mind of the station agent, she writes: “[Johanna] continued to look at him without a smile or any admission of her female foolishness.”
And now, approaching thirty, I have this whole new adolescence in front of me, a chance to read books with titles like Lives of Girls and Women, to have that quiet engagement with the page, a secret destination I am always headed toward.
In Alice Munro’s Nobel acceptance speech, which came in the form of an interview with a respectful Swede, and during which she never once looked up, she said she started writing stories because she wanted to create new, better endings for fairy-tale heroines with tragic fates. The Little Mermaid deserved, she said, a better life and a better death. And in creating the alternative, she felt she had found a purpose. Like Johanna trying on her wedding dress: “She had never in her life had this silly feeling of being enhanced by what she had put on herself.” Coming late to fashion, Johanna sees how the right garment can create a context for her body, for everything that’s ungainly about her. Coming late to Munro, I see that she has been with me all along, her devices and intentions forming so much of what I notice in art that I love, waiting for me to find their point of origin.
To read “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” and other stories from the Summer 2014 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store