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One of Our Great Authors Just Died. This Is the Book That Explains Why People Loved Her So Much.

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Books

Alice Munro cracked the lives of ordinary people like geodes to discover what glittered within.

Alice Munro in 2009. Peter Muhly/Getty Images

When Alice Munro, who died Monday, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013, some saw it as the Swedish Academy stooping to validate a certain kind of fiction often dismissed as "the New Yorker short story": quiet, realistic, domestic in focus, and with little in the way of conventional plot. In fact, Munro's Nobel did more credit to the academy than it did to her. For once, they got it exactly right. Her work had few of the qualities typically associated with the Nobel: political commentary, formal invention, evident ambition. Yet she was the absolute best, incomparable, at what she did, and her work transcended the limitations of her genre.

It also transcended the limitations of readers' tastes. No one who already likes this particular flavor of fiction needs to be told that Munro was its master, but to all the readers who think they don't care for it (and I know there are a lot of you!): Here is where you want to make an exception. Munro belonged to that handful of short story writers (Deborah Eisenberg is another) who never need to write a novel because they are capable of compressing the essence of an entire lifetime into a dozen pages.

Her subjects are provincial, mostly women, in rural or suburban Ontario or Vancouver. Their lives, like most lives, trail the ghosts of untried possibilities behind them like wedding trains. Fissures of denied passion and alternate fates run beneath the surface of respectable marriages. A single encounter can redound for decades. Every life is the product of a series of choices, and every choice is a renunciation of some kind; fully appreciating this is often the product of age, and because the reverberation of all those decisions is the abiding subject of Munro's work, her fiction is only for grown-ups. She was able to crack the surface of ordinary people like geodes, to reveal the glittering insides. Like the much-quoted narrator of one her stories, she found them "dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum."

By all accounts, Munro was also a master at saying no. According to an obituary that appeared in the Globe and Mail, she "never published a book review in her entire career, never learned to drive and, in 1983, she turned down an invitation to join the Order of Canada." She tried teaching, that classic day job for literary writers, and didn't care for it, so she never did it again. As her fame grew, she begged off interviews and book tours. Above all, she resisted every attempt to make her write a novel.

Born into the Great Depression, a young woman who dropped out of college to marry her first husband, Munro belonged to a generation of women who were expected to be contented with a strictly domestic existence. In a way she was—she just turned it into the stuff of great literature, writing at the dining room table after her three daughters had gone to school or to bed. Autobiography wound through her stories, but never more so than in her 1971 linked story collection Lives of Girls and Women. In that work—sometimes, erroneously, described as her only novel and even, at first, marketed as one—a central character, Del Jordan, like Munro herself, grows up on a fox farm in rural Ontario. Del, too, becomes a writer, keenly observing the people around her and determined to do justice to them by accounting for "every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting." And that, as Munro and her many readers would discover, was so much more than enough.

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