The Progress of Love
Alice Munro’s collection of short fiction takes its title from the volume’s first story. Indeed, “The Progress of Love” serves well to describe the ten other pieces when viewing “progress” in the light of its subtler meaning, “unfolding,” for all the stories concern themselves with the unfolding of love in lives altogether ordinary. The characters search for this love, find it sometimes, lose it on other occasions, even try to avoid the responsibilities it carries, yet always discover the joy it brings, even if short-lived. When Stella in “Lichen” tells her former husband that “he wasn’t interested in love,” she has struck the discordant note that resounds throughout: To ignore love is to discard one’s humanity. Or as the wife in “Lichen” adds, “I think all you’re interested in is being a big bad boy.”
The title story introduces the themes upon which the subsequent narratives elaborate. In it the first-person narrator constructs a framework of human relationships—those between parents and children, between husband and wife, lovers, brothers and sisters, friends. Time shifts, flowing from past to present to far distant past, as the narrator—now a real-estate agent, divorced—covers the progress of love in three generations of her family. From these recollections she draws no astounding conclusions, only that “moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later.”
“Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux” takes up the complexities thrust upon a family, one of whose sons is retarded. As the two boys grow into maturity, the subtle pattern formed during childhood continues, the retarded son unaware of the precariousness of the relationship but simply accepting the protection love affords, the other son acknowledging that the obligation of watching out for his brother “was going to be his job in life from then on.” Another story, “Miles City, Montana,” addresses a similar theme, the trust that small children place in their parents. After a near drowning of one of their children, the parents drive on “with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice.” The mother, who has narrated the story, wonders whether in time the children will be able to forgive their mother and father for the “natural, and particular, mistakes” that they might make in the future.
“Fits” and “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” both examine the elusiveness of love. “An emotional spendthrift,” one of the characters calls himself in “Fits,” which tells of a seemingly happy couple who die in a double suicide and which reveals how the discovery of their bodies by a neighbor woman affects her own relationship with her husband. In fact, the story is ultimately more concerned with the way others react to the event than with those who have killed themselves, for through their violent action the elusive nature of love resounds. The second narrative, one of the best in the volume, again depends on memory in its telling, as Sam reconstructs events of fifty years ago on his return to a small prairie town where he attempts to rekindle the special love that had once united him with Callie and Edgar. The happiness they had shared, when recalled, leads Sam to question: “Do such moments really mean, as they seem to, that we have a life of happiness with which we only occasionally, knowingly, intersect?” Or, he might have asked: “Is happiness as elusive as ’the moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink?’”
The quest for love dominates “Jesse and Meribeth” and “Eskimo.” The first story recounts a...
(The entire section is 1491 words.)