WINNER OF THE NOBEL PRIZE® IN LITERATURE 2013
This acclaimed, bestselling collection also contains the celebrated stories that inspired the Pedro Almodóvar film Julieta. 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 luster 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 neighbors. It is her miraculous gift to make these stories as real and unforgettable as our own.
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.
Hometown:Clinton, Ontario, and Comox, British Columbia
Date of Birth:July 10, 1931
Place of Birth:Wingham, Ontario, Canada
Education:University of Western Ontario (no degree)
Read an Excerpt
Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill. It’s her, she thought. Mrs. Jamieson—Sylvia—home from her holiday in Greece. From the barn door—but far enough inside that she could not readily be seen—she watched the road Mrs. Jamieson would have to drive by on, her place being half a mile farther along the road than Clark and Carla’s.
If it was somebody getting ready to turn in at their gate it would be slowing down by now. But still Carla hoped. Let it not be her.
It was. Mrs. Jamieson turned her head once, quickly—she had all she could do maneuvering her car through the ruts and puddles the rain had made in the gravel—but she didn’t lift a hand off the wheel to wave, she didn’t spot Carla. Carla got a glimpse of a tanned arm bare to the shoulder, hair bleached a lighter color than it had been before, more white now than silver-blond, and an expression that was determined and exasperated and amused at her own exasperation—just the way Mrs. Jamieson would look negotiating such a road. When she turned her head there was something like a bright flash—of inquiry, of hopefulness—that made Carla shrink back.
Maybe Clark didn’t know yet. If he was sitting at the computer he would have his back to the window and the road.
But Mrs. Jamieson might have to make another trip. Driv- ing home from the airport, she might not have stopped for groceries—not until she’d been home and figured out what she needed. Clark might see her then. And after dark, the lights of her house would show. But this was July, and it didn’t get dark till late. She might be so tired that she wouldn’t bother with the lights, she might go to bed early.
On the other hand, she might telephone. Any time now.
This was the summer of rain and more rain. You heard it first thing in the morning, loud on the roof of the mobile home. The trails were deep in mud, the long grass soaking, leaves overhead sending down random showers even in those moments when there was no actual downpour from the sky and the clouds looked like clearing. Carla wore a high, wide-brimmed old Australian felt hat every time she went outside, and tucked her long thick braid down her shirt.
Nobody showed up for trail rides, even though Clark and Carla had gone around posting signs in all the camping sites, in the cafes, and on the tourist office billboard and anywhere else they could think of. Only a few pupils were coming for lessons and those were regulars, not the batches of schoolchildren on vacation, the busloads from summer camps, that had kept them going through last summer. And even the regulars that they counted on were taking time off for holiday trips, or simply cancelling their lessons because of the weather being so discouraging. If they called too late, Clark charged them for the time anyway. A couple of them had complained, and quit for good.
There was still some income from the three horses that were boarded. Those three, and the four of their own, were out in the field now, poking around in the grass under the trees. They looked as if they couldn’t be bothered to notice that the rain was holding off for the moment, the way it often did for a while in the afternoon. Just enough to get your hopes up—the clouds whitening and thinning and letting through a diffuse brightness that never got around to being real sunshine, and was usually gone before supper.
Carla had finished mucking out in the barn. She had taken her time—she liked the rhythm of her regular chores, the high space under the barn roof, the smells. Now she went over to the exercise ring to see how dry the ground was, in case the five o’clock pupil did show up.
Most of the steady showers had not been particularly heavy, or borne on any wind, but last week there had come a sud- den stirring and then a blast through the treetops and a nearly horizontal blinding rain. In a quarter of an hour the storm had passed over. But branches lay across the road, hydro lines were down, and a large chunk of the plastic roofing over the ring had been torn loose. There was a puddle like a lake at that end of the track, and Clark had worked until after dark, digging a channel to drain it away.
The roof had not yet been repaired. Clark had strung fence wire across to keep the horses from getting into the mud, and Carla had marked out a shorter track.
On the Web, right now, Clark was hunting for someplace to buy roofing. Some salvage outlet, with prices that they could afford, or somebody trying to get rid of such material secondhand. He would not go to Hy and Robbert Buckley’s Building Supply in town, which he called Highway Robbers Buggery Supply, because he owed them too much money and had had a fight with them.
Clark had fights not just with the people he owed money to. His friendliness, compelling at first, could suddenly turn sour. There were places he would not go into, where he always made Carla go, because of some row. The drugstore was one such place. An old woman had pushed in front of him—that is, she had gone to get something she’d forgotten and come back and pushed in front, rather than going to the end of the line, and he had complained, and the cashier had said to him, “She has emphysema,” and Clark had said, “Is that so? I have piles, myself,” and the manager had been summoned, to say that was uncalled-for. And in the coffee shop out on the highway the advertised breakfast discount had not been allowed, because it was past eleven o’clock in the morning, and Clark had argued and then dropped his takeout cup of coffee on the floor—just missing, so they said, a child in its stroller. He said the child was half a mile away and he dropped the cup because no cuff had been provided. They said he had not asked for a cuff. He said he shouldn’t have had to ask.
“You flare up,” said Carla.
“That’s what men do.”
She had not said anything to him about his row with Joy Tucker. Joy Tucker was the librarian from town who boarded her horse with them. The horse was a quick-tempered little chestnut mare named Lizzie—Joy Tucker, when she was in a jokey mood, called her Lizzie Borden. Yesterday she had driven out, not in a jokey mood at all, and complained about the roof’s not being fixed yet, and Lizzie looking miserable, as if she might have caught a chill.
There was nothing the matter with Lizzie, actually. Clark had tried—for him—to be placating. But then it was Joy Tucker who flared up and said that their place was a dump, and Lizzie deserved better, and Clark said, “Suit yourself.” Joy had not—or not yet—removed Lizzie, as Carla had expected. But Clark, who had formerly made the little mare his pet, had refused to have anything more to do with her. Lizzie’s feelings were hurt, in consequence—she was balky when exercised and kicked up a fuss when her hoofs had to be picked out, as they did every day, lest they develop a fungus. Carla had to watch out for nips.
But the worst thing as far as Carla was concerned was the absence of Flora, the little white goat who kept the horses company in the barn and in the fields. There had not been any sign of her for two days. Carla was afraid that wild dogs or coyotes had got her, or even a bear.
She had dreamt of Flora last night and the night before. In the first dream Flora had walked right up to the bed with a red apple in her mouth, but in the second dream—last night—she had run away when she saw Carla coming. Her leg seemed to be hurt but she ran anyway. She led Carla to a barbed-wire barricade of the kind that might belong on some battlefield, and then she—Flora—slipped through it, hurt leg and all, just slithered through like a white eel and disappeared.
The horses had seen Carla go across to the ring and they had all moved up to the fence—looking bedraggled in spite of their New Zealand blankets—so that she would take notice of them on her way back. She talked quietly to them, apologizing for coming empty-handed. She stroked their necks and rubbed their noses and asked whether they knew anything about Flora.
Grace and Juniper snorted and nuzzled up, as if they recognized the name and shared her concern, but then Lizzie butted in between them and knocked Grace’s head away from Carla’s petting hand. She gave the hand a nip for good measure, and Carla had to spend some time scolding her.
Up until three years ago Carla never really looked at mobile homes. She didn’t call them that, either. Like her parents, she would have thought “mobile home” pretentious. Some people lived in trailers, and that was all there was to it. One trailer was no different from another. When Carla moved in here, when she chose this life with Clark, she began to see things in a new way. After that she started saying “mobile home” and she looked to see how people had fixed them up. The kind of curtains they had hung, the way they had painted the trim, the ambitious decks or patios or extra rooms that had been built on. She could hardly wait to get at such improvements herself.
Clark had gone along with her ideas, for a while. He had built new steps, and spent a lot of time looking for an old wrought-iron railing for them. He didn’t make any complaint about the money spent on paint for the kitchen and bathroom or the material for curtains. Her paint job was hasty—she didn’t know, at that time, that you should take the hinges off the cupboard doors. Or that you should line the curtains, which had since faded.
What Clark balked at was tearing up the carpet, which was the same in every room and the thing that she had most counted on replacing. It was divided into small brown squares, each with a pattern of darker brown and rust and tan squiggles and shapes. For a long time she had thought these were the same squig- gles and shapes, arranged in the same way, in each square. Then when she had had more time, a lot of time, to examine them, she decided that there were four patterns joined together to make identical larger squares. Sometimes she could pick out the arrangement easily and sometimes she had to work to see it.
She did this when it was raining outside and Clark’s mood weighted down all their inside space, and he did not want to pay attention to anything but the computer screen. But the best thing to do then was to invent or remember some job to do in the barn. The horses would not look at her when she was unhappy, but Flora, who was never tied up, would come and rub against her, and look up with an expression that was not quite sympathy—it was more like comradely mockery—in her shimmering yellow-green eyes.
Flora had been a half-grown kid when Clark brought her home from a farm where he had gone to bargain for some horse tackle. The people there were giving up on the country life, or at least on the raising of animals—they had sold their horses but failed to get rid of their goats. He had heard about how a goat was able to bring a sense of ease and comfort into a horse stable and he wanted to try it. They had meant to breed her someday but there had never been any signs of her coming into heat.
At first she had been Clark’s pet entirely, following him everywhere, dancing for his attention. She was quick and graceful and provocative as a kitten, and her resemblance to a guileless girl in love had made them both laugh. But as she grew older she seemed to attach herself to Carla, and in this attachment she was suddenly much wiser, less skittish—she seemed capable, instead, of a subdued and ironic sort of humor. Carla’s behavior with the horses was tender and strict and rather maternal, but the comradeship with Flora was quite different, Flora allowing her no sense of superiority.
“Still no sign of Flora?” she said, as she pulled off her barn boots. Clark had posted a Lost Goat notice on the Web.
“Not so far,” he said, in a preoccupied but not unfriendly voice. He suggested, not for the first time, that Flora might have just gone off to find herself a billy.
No word about Mrs. Jamieson. Carla put the kettle on. Clark was humming to himself as he often did when he sat in front of the computer.
Sometimes he talked back to it. Bullshit, he would say, replying to some challenge. Or he would laugh—but could not remember what the joke was, when she asked him afterwards.
Carla called, “Do you want tea?” and to her surprise he got up and came into the kitchen.
“So,” he said. “So, Carla.”
“So she phoned.”
“Her Majesty. Queen Sylvia. She just got back.”
“I didn’t hear the car.”
“I didn’t ask you if you did.”
“So what did she phone for?”
“She wants you to go and help her straighten up the house. That’s what she said. Tomorrow.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her sure. But you better phone up and confirm.”
Carla said, “I don’t see why I have to, if you told her.” She poured out their mugs of tea. “I cleaned up her house before she left. I don’t see what there could be to do so soon.”
“Maybe some coons got in and made a mess of it while she was gone. You never know.”
“I don’t have to phone her right this minute,” she said. “I want to drink my tea and I want to have a shower.”
“The sooner the better.”
Carla took her tea into the bathroom, calling back, “We have to go to the laundromat. Even when the towels dry out they smell moldy.”
“We’re not changing the subject, Carla.”
Even after she’d got in the shower he stood outside the door and called to her.
“I am not going to let you off the hook, Carla.”
She thought he might still be standing there when she came out, but he was back at the computer. She dressed as if she was going to town—she hoped that if they could get out of here, go to the laundromat, get a takeout at the cappuccino place, they might be able to talk in a different way, some release might be possible. She went into the living room with a brisk step and put her arms around him from behind. But as soon as she did that a wave of grief swallowed her up—it must have been the heat of the shower, loosening her tears—and she bent over him, all crumbling and crying.
He took his hands off the keyboard but sat still.
“Just don’t be mad at me,” she said.
“I’m not mad. I hate when you’re like this, that’s all.”
“I’m like this because you’re mad.”
“Don’t tell me what I am. You’re choking me. Start supper.”
That was what she did. It was obvious by now that the five o’clock person wasn’t coming. She got out the potatoes and began to peel them, but her tears would not stop and she could not see what she was doing. She wiped her face with a paper towel and tore off a fresh one to take with her and went out into the rain. She didn’t go into the barn because it was too miserable in there without Flora. She walked along the lane back to the woods. The horses were in the other field. They came over to the fence to watch her. All of them except Lizzie, who capered and snorted a bit, had the sense to understand that her attention was elsewhere.
. . .
It had started when they read the obituary, Mr. Jamieson’s obituary. That was in the city paper, and his face had been on the evening news. Up until the year before, they had known the Jamiesons only as neighbors who kept to themselves. She taught Botany at the college forty miles away, so she had to spend a good deal of her time on the road. He was a poet.
Everybody knew that much. But he seemed to be occupied with other things. For a poet, and for an old man—perhaps twenty years older than Mrs. Jamieson—he was rugged and active. He improved the drainage system on his place, cleaning out the culvert and lining it with rocks. He dug and planted and fenced a vegetable garden, cut paths through the woods, looked after repairs on the house.
The house itself was an odd-looking triangular affair that he had built years ago, with some friends, on the foundation of an old wrecked farmhouse. Those people were spoken of as hippies—though Mr. Jamieson must have been a bit old for that, even then, before Mrs. Jamieson’s time. There was a story that they grew marijuana in the woods, sold it, and stored the money in sealed glass jars, which were buried around the property. Clark had heard this from the people he got to know in town. He said it was bullshit.
“Else somebody would have got in and dug it up, before now. Somebody would have found a way to make him tell where it was.”
When they read the obituary Carla and Clark learned for the first time that Leon Jamieson had been the recipient of a large prize, five years before his death. A prize for poetry. Nobody had ever mentioned this. It seemed that people could believe in dope money buried in glass jars, but not in money won for writing poetry.
Shortly after this Clark said, “We could’ve made him pay.”
Carla knew at once what he was talking about, but she took it as a joke.
“Too late now,” she said. “You can’t pay once you’re dead.”
“He can’t. She could.”
“She’s gone to Greece.”
“She’s not going to stay in Greece.”
“She didn’t know,” said Carla more soberly.
“I didn’t say she did.”
“She doesn’t have a clue about it.”
“We could fix that.”
Carla said, “No. No.”
Clark went on as if she had not spoken.
“We could say we’re going to sue. People get money for stuff like that all the time.”
“How could you do that? You can’t sue a dead person.”
“Threaten to go to the papers. Big-time poet. The papers would eat it up. All we have to do is threaten and she’d cave in.”
“You’re just fantasizing,” Carla said. “You’re joking.”
“No,” said Clark. “Actually, I’m not.”
Carla said she did not want to talk about it anymore and he said okay.
But they talked about it the next day, and the next and the next. He sometimes got notions like this that were not practicable, which might even be illegal. He talked about them with growing excitement and then—she wasn’t sure why—he dropped them. If the rain had stopped, if this had turned into something like a normal summer, he might have let this idea go the way of the others. But that had not happened, and during the last month he had harped on the scheme as if it was perfectly feasible and serious. The question was how much money to ask for. Too little, and the woman might not take them seriously, she might be inclined to see if they were bluffing. Too much might get her back up and she might become stubborn.
Carla had stopped saying that it was a joke. Instead she told him that it wouldn’t work. She said that for one thing, people expected poets to be that way. So it wouldn’t be worth paying out money to cover it up.
He said that it would work if it was done right. Carla was to break down and tell Mrs. Jamieson the whole story. Then Clark would move in, as if it had all been a surprise to him, he had just found out. He would be outraged, he would talk about telling the world. He would let Mrs. Jamieson be the one who first mentioned money.
“You were injured. You were molested and humiliated and I was injured and humiliated because you are my wife. It’s a question of respect.”
Over and over again he talked to her in this way and she tried to deflect him but he insisted.
“Promise,” he said. “Promise.”
This was because of what she had told him, things she could not now retract or deny.
Sometimes he gets interested in me?
The old guy?
Sometimes he calls me into the room when she’s not there?
When she has to go out shopping and the nurse isn’t there either.
A lucky inspiration of hers, one that instantly pleased him.
So what do you do then? Do you go in?
She played shy.
He calls you into his room. So? Carla? So, then?
I go in to see what he wants.
So what does he want?
This was asked and told in whispers, even if there was nobody to hear, even when they were in the neverland of their bed. A bedtime story, in which the details were important and had to be added to every time, and this with convincing reluctance, shyness, giggles, dirty, dirty. And it was not only he who was eager and grateful. She was too. Eager to please and excite him, to excite herself. Grateful every time it still worked.
And in one part of her mind it was true, she saw the randy old man, the bump he made in the sheet, bedridden indeed, almost beyond speech but proficient in sign language, indicating his desire, trying to nudge and finger her into complicity, into obliging stunts and intimacies. (Her refusal a necessity, but also perhaps strangely, slightly disappointing, to Clark.)
Now and then came an image that she had to hammer down, lest it spoil everything. She would think of the real dim and sheeted body, drugged and shrinking every day in its rented hospital bed, glimpsed only a few times when Mrs. Jamieson or the visiting nurse had neglected to close the door. She herself never actually coming closer to him than that.
In fact she had dreaded going to the Jamiesons’, but she needed the money, and she felt sorry for Mrs. Jamieson, who seemed so haunted and bewildered, as if she was walking in her sleep. Once or twice Carla had burst out and done something really silly just to loosen up the atmosphere. The kind of thing she did when clumsy and terrified first-time horseback riders were feeling humiliated. She used to try that too when Clark was stuck in his moods. It didn’t work with him anymore. But the story about Mr. Jamieson had worked, decisively.
There was no way to avoid the puddles in the path or the tall soaked grass alongside it, or the wild carrot which had recently come into flower. But the air was warm enough so that she didn’t get chilly. Her clothes were soaked through as if by her own sweat or the tears that ran down her face with the drizzle of rain. Her weeping petered out in time. She had nothing to wipe her nose on—the paper towel now soggy—but she leaned over and blew it hard into a puddle.
She lifted her head and managed the long-drawn-out, vibrating whistle that was her signal—Clark’s too—for Flora. She waited a couple of minutes and then called Flora’s name. Over and over again, whistle and name, whistle and name.
Flora did not respond.
It was almost a relief, though, to feel the single pain of missing Flora, of missing Flora perhaps forever, compared to the mess she had got into concerning Mrs. Jamieson, and her seesaw misery with Clark. At least Flora’s leaving was not on account of anything that she—Carla—had done wrong.
At the house, there was nothing for Sylvia to do except to open the windows. And to think—with an eagerness that dismayed without really surprising her—of how soon she could see Carla.
All the paraphernalia of illness had been removed. The room that had been Sylvia and her husband’s bedroom and then his death chamber had been cleaned out and tidied up to look as if nothing had ever happened in it. Carla had helped with all that during the few frenzied days between the crematorium and the departure for Greece. Every piece of clothing Leon had ever worn and some things he hadn’t, including gifts from his sisters that had never been taken out of their packages, had been piled in the backseat of the car and delivered to the Thrift Shop. His pills, his shaving things, unopened cans of the fortified drink that had sustained him as long as anything could, cartons of the sesame seed snaps that at one time he had eaten by the dozens, the plastic bottles full of the lotion that had eased his back, the sheepskins on which he had lain—all of that was dumped into plastic bags to be hauled away as garbage, and Carla didn’t question a thing. She never said, “Maybe somebody could use that,” or pointed out that whole cartons of cans were unopened. When Sylvia said, “I wish I hadn’t taken the clothes to town. I wish I’d burned them all up in the incinerator,” Carla had shown no surprise.
They cleaned the oven, scrubbed out the cupboards, wiped down the walls and the windows. One day Sylvia sat in the living room going through all the condolence letters she had received. (There was no accumulation of papers and notebooks to be attended to, as you might have expected with a writer, no unfinished work or scribbled drafts. He had told her, months before, that he had pitched everything. And no regrets.)
The south-sloping wall of the house was made up of big windows. Sylvia looked up, surprised by the watery sunlight that had come out—or possibly surprised by the shadow of Carla, bare-legged, bare-armed, on top of a ladder, her resolute face crowned with a frizz of dandelion hair that was too short for the braid. She was vigorously spraying and scrubbing the glass. When she saw Sylvia looking at her she stopped and flung out her arms as if she was splayed there, making a silly gargoyle-like face. They both began to laugh. Sylvia felt this laughter running all through her like a playful stream. She went back to her letters as Carla resumed the cleaning. She decided that all of these kind words—genuine or perfunctory, the tributes and regrets—could go the way of the sheepskins and the crackers.
When she heard Carla taking the ladder down, heard boots on the deck, she was suddenly shy. She sat where she was with her head bowed as Carla came into the room and passed behind her on her way to the kitchen to put the pail and the cloths back under the sink. Carla hardly halted, she was quick as a bird, but she managed to drop a kiss on Sylvia’s bent head. Then she went on whistling something to herself.
That kiss had been in Sylvia’s mind ever since. It meant nothing in particular. It meant Cheer up. Or Almost done. It meant that they were good friends who had got through a lot of depressing work together. Or maybe just that the sun had come out. That Carla was thinking of getting home to her horses. Nevertheless, Sylvia saw it as a bright blossom, its petals spreading inside her with tumultuous heat, like a menopausal flash.
Every so often there had been a special girl student in one of her botany classes—one whose cleverness and dedication and awkward egotism, or even genuine passion for the natural world, reminded her of her young self. Such girls hung around her worshipfully, hoped for some sort of intimacy they could not—in most cases—imagine, and they soon got on her nerves.
Carla was nothing like them. If she resembled anybody in Sylvia’s life, it would have to be certain girls she had known in high school—those who were bright but never too bright, easy athletes but not strenuously competitive, buoyant but not rambunctious. Naturally happy.
“Where I was, this little village, this little tiny village with my two old friends, well, it was the sort of place where the very occasional tourist bus would stop, just as if it had got lost, and the tourists would get off and look around and they were absolutely bewildered because they weren’t anywhere. There was nothing to buy.”
Sylvia was speaking about Greece. Carla was sitting a few feet away from her. The large-limbed, uncomfortable, dazzling girl was sitting there at last, in the room that had been filled with thoughts of her. She was faintly smiling, belatedly nodding.
“And at first,” Sylvia said, “at first I was bewildered too. It was so hot. But it’s true about the light. It’s wonderful. And then I figured out what there was to do, and there were just these few simple things but they could fill the day. You walk half a mile down the road to buy some oil and half a mile in the other direction to buy your bread or your wine, and that’s the morning, and you eat some lunch under the trees and after lunch it’s too hot to do anything but close the shutters and lie on your bed and maybe read. At first you read. And then it gets so you don’t even do that. Why read? Later on you notice the shadows are longer and you get up and go for a swim.
“Oh,” she interrupted herself. “Oh, I forgot.”
She jumped up and went to get the present she had brought, which in fact she had not forgotten about at all. She had not wanted to hand it to Carla right away, she had wanted the moment to come more naturally, and while she was speaking she had thought ahead to the moment when she could mention the sea, going swimming. And say, as she now said, “Swimming reminded me of this because it’s a little replica, you know, it’s a little replica of the horse they found under the sea. Cast in bronze. They dredged it up, after all this time. It’s supposed to be from the second century b.c.”
When Carla had come in and looked around for work to do, Sylvia had said, “Oh, just sit down a minute, I haven’t had anybody to talk to since I got back. Please.” Carla had sat down on the edge of a chair, legs apart, hands between her knees, looking somehow desolate. As if reaching for some distant politeness she had said, “How was Greece?”
Now she was standing, with the tissue paper crumpled around the horse, which she had not fully unwrapped.
“It’s said to represent a racehorse,” Sylvia said. “Making that final spurt, the last effort in a race. The rider, too, the boy, you can see he’s urging the horse on to the limit of its strength.”
She did not mention that the boy had made her think of Carla, and she could not now have said why. He was only about ten or eleven years old. Maybe the strength and grace of the arm that must have held the reins, or the wrinkles in his childish forehead, the absorption and the pure effort there was in some way like Carla cleaning the big windows last spring. Her strong legs in her shorts, her broad shoulders, her big swipes at the glass, and then the way she had splayed herself out as a joke, inviting or even commanding Sylvia to laugh.
“You can see that,” Carla said, now conscientiously examining the little bronzy-green statue. “Thank you very much.”
“You are welcome. Let’s have coffee, shall we? I’ve just made some. The coffee in Greece was quite strong, a little stronger than I liked, but the bread was heavenly. And the ripe figs, they were astounding. Sit down another moment, please do. You should stop me going on and on this way. What about here? How has life been here?”
“It’s been raining most of the time.”
“I can see that. I can see it has,” Sylvia called from the kitchen end of the big room. Pouring the coffee, she decided that she would keep quiet about the other gift she had brought. It hadn’t cost her anything (the horse had cost more than the girl could probably guess), it was only a beautiful small pinkish-white stone she had picked up along the road.
“This is for Carla,” she had said to her friend Maggie, who was walking beside her. “I know it’s silly. I just want her to have a tiny piece of this land.”
She had already mentioned Carla to Maggie, and to Soraya, her other friend there, telling them how the girl’s presence had come to mean more and more to her, how an indescribable bond had seemed to grow up between them, and had consoled her in the awful months of last spring.
“It was just to see somebody—somebody so fresh and full of health coming into the house.”
Maggie and Soraya had laughed in a kindly but annoying way.
“There’s always a girl,” Soraya said, with an indolent stretch of her heavy brown arms, and Maggie said, “We all come to it sometime. A crush on a girl.”
Sylvia was obscurely angered by that dated word—crush.
“Maybe it’s because Leon and I never had children,” she said. “It’s stupid. Displaced maternal love.”
Her friends spoke at the same time, saying in slightly different ways something to the effect that it might be stupid but it was, after all, love.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
“Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America. Runaway is a marvel.” –The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Alice Munro’s superb new collection, Runaway. In these eight tales, we find women of all ages and circumstances, their lives made palpable by the subtlety and empathy of this incomparable writer.
1. “Runaway”Why is Sylvia so fond of Carla? Is Sylvia right, given the circumstances, to suggest that Carla leave her husband and give her the means to do so?
2. When Carla tells her parents she wants a “more authentic” life, what does she mean by this [p. 33]? How much does Carla know about authenticity or about life?
3. What is Clark’s appeal for Carla? What darker suggestions does the story make about Clark’s character? It seems that Clark has wanted to get rid of Carla’s beloved pet goat: why? What resonance does Carla’s vision of the goat’s bones lying in a nearby field have for the reader’s understanding of her future?
4. “Chance” Why does Juliet decide to pursue Eric, a man she has met briefly only once? Is this a haphazard adventure, or does she go to Whale Bay with a determination about what she wants? She has told Eric about her studies in Greek and Latin, “I love all that stuff. I really do” [p. 71]. Later, she thinks of her love of the classical languages as her “treasure” [p. 83]. Why does she choose a man whose reading includes only National Geographic and Popular Mechanics [p. 82]?
5. Consider the end of the story: “She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her. She stands up, quite numb, and sees that he is older, heavier, more impetuous than she has remembered. He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay” [p. 85]. What does this passage express about Juliet’s situation and her feelings?
6. “Soon”When Juliet finds the print of Chagall’s I and the Village and buys it for her parents, she tells Christa, “It makes me think of their life. . . . I don’t know why, but it does” [p. 88]. What is the significance of this painting as a gift and that Juliet later finds it hidden away in their attic? What does Juliet come to understand about her parents’ marriage?
7. Sara tells Juliet, “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” [p. 124]. Why does Juliet refuse to acknowledge this statement from her dying mother? What makes the final paragraph of the story so effective in conveying the moment’s cold emotion?
8. “Silence”Like Carla in “Runaway,” Juliet seems to take pride in her choice of an unconventional life. Does Penelope punish her mother for denying her the comfortable, conventional life she experiences with her friend Heather’s family [p. 144]? Is Juliet right or wrong to share with Penelope, just after Eric’s death, tales of their arguments and his infidelity and to describe the burning of his body on the beach [p. 149]? Is it possible that Juliet says something during this time that is, for Penelope, unforgivable? To what extent does the story repeat the pattern of “Soon” and Juliet’s rejection of her own mother?
9. What does Juliet not see about herself that is clear to the reader? What aspects of her character are problematic? Is she admirable? Is she a narcissist? Is she “lacking in motherly inhibitions and propriety and self-control” [p. 156]? How does she handle the suffering inflicted upon her by Penelope and the diminishment of her life as she ages?
10. “Passion” When Mrs. Travers is talking about Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina with Grace, she says her sympathies shifted from Kitty, to Anna, to Dolly, “I suppose that’s just how your sympathies change as you get older. Passion gets pushed behind the washtubs” [p. 172]. Does passion have several meanings in this story? What does passion mean for each character?
11. “The ease with which [Grace] offered herself” to Maury is “a deliberate offering which he could not understand and which did not fit in at all with his notions of her” [p. 173]. Later, Grace realizes it would have been “a treachery to herself” to think of marrying Maury [p. 190]. What changes for Grace when she spends time with Neil? What causes this profound shift in perspective? What do she and Neil have in common?
12. The story opens with Grace’s return forty years later to find the Traverses’ house on the lake, which is the site of “old confusions or obligations” [p. 161]. Why does Munro choose not to tell us what Grace’s life is like now and how the choices she made that day have affected her?
13. “Trespasses”Harry tells Lauren about Eileen’s first child and the circumstances of that child’s death when she unknowingly picks up the box containing the first child’s ashes [pp. 203—04]. What do we learn about his character from the way he narrates the story and his attitude toward Lauren as he tells her? What does he imply about Eileen? How does Lauren’s response reflect her feelings toward her parents and to the life they’ve chosen?
14. Lauren, as Delphine points out, is “a kid that is not short of information” [p. 220]. We don’t learn until page 226, however, that Lauren is only ten. Why does Munro withhold this information until fairly late in the story?
15. Why do Harry and Eileen decide to make a ceremony of scattering the first child’s ashes? What is the impact of Harry’s words, “This is Lauren . . . and we say good-bye to her and commit her to the snow” [pp. 233—34]? What is the effect of the story’s final paragraph about Lauren’s reaction to the burrs clinging to her pajamas?
16. “Tricks”This story is based on the Shakespearean plots that involve twins, mistaken identities, and precise symmetry. Such tricks of plot, Robin thinks, are supposed to be a means to an end, “The pranks are forgiven, true love or something like it is rekindled, and those who were fooled have the good grace not to complain” [p. 268]. Why is the key to the mystery revealed to Robin so late in the game? Why did the lovers base their happiness on such a risky proposal? After finding out what had come between herself and Danilo, Robin reflects, “That was another world they had been in, surely” [p. 269]. What was this other world?
17. The title of this story might also be “Chance.” What does Munro suggest about the power of chance in shaping a life?
18. “Powers”The story opens with Nancy’s diary and her first person voice. What do we learn about Nancy’s character in this intimate narrative form? According to Ollie, Nancy is “not outstanding in any way, except perhaps in being spoiled, saucy, and egotistical”; as a girl she was “truly, naturally reckless and full of some pure conviction that she led a charmed life” [pp. 285, 287]. Is this an accurate description of Nancy?
19. Like several other stories in this collection, “Powers” takes place in at least two time periods. It begins in 1927 and ends some time in the early seventies. What is the effect of this dual immersion in the early and late stages of the characters’ lives? How accurately does this story project the sense of reality in its main character’s voice and her immersion in a particular time and place?
20. What does Nancy want or expect from marriage? Why does she marry Wilf? Does it seem that she would prefer to marry Ollie? Why or why not? Does Nancy warn Tessa against Ollie out of jealousy, or out of a realistic concern that he is not to be trusted?
21. Does the story’s ending describe a dream [pp. 330—35]? A vision? Why does it provide Nancy with a “sense of being reprieved” [p. 335]? What does it tell us about Nancy’s conscience and about her lifelong involvement with Tessa and Ollie?
22. For discussion of RunawayMost of these stories involve young women who act upon a strong desire for sexual or romantic fulfillment or for escape from a stifling life. Is desire liberating or confining? Do these characters really know what they want or need? Does Munro suggest that desire is provisional and subject to change? Do the stories imply that life is inherently unstable and unknowable?
23. Writer Alan Hollinghurst has observed, “Munro’s stories have always felt exceptionally capacious; they have the scope of novels, though without any awkward sense of speeding up or boiling down. . . . It’s almost impossible to describe their unforced exactness, their unrushed economy” [The Guardian, February 5, 2005]. Which techniques does Munro employ to accomplish this illusion of space and time in only forty or fifty pages?
24. In “Soon,” Juliet comes across a chatty letter she had written to Eric the summer she visited her parents [p. 124]. In it she finds “the preserved and disconcerting voice of some past fabricated self” [p. 125]. How does this idea of false self-representation work in various stories? Do characters tend to misrepresent themselves mainly in letters, or in person as well? Do they believe in these “fabricated selves” that they create for themselves and others?
25. Most of the stories in Runaway involve an older woman who is looking back at a determining moment in her youth. How do these characters view their younger selves? What are the qualities that accompany their reminiscences about the past–sentimentality, irony, bitterness, regret, a desire to change the story?