Runaway by Alice Munro

October 13, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Runaway by Alice Munro (2004) French title : Fugitives. Translated from the Canadian by Jacqueline Huet and Jean-Pierre Carasso.

Munro_FugitivesBefore I start telling you about Runaway, please allow me a little rant. I’m angry at the French publisher. I dare you to find a male Nobel Prize winner with such a pink cover for his books. The reasoning seems to be: it’s written by a woman, about women, therefore it is aimed at a female readership and it deserves a pink cover. I tell you, it is a shame to market a book written by such a remarkable author as it were a book by Sophie Kinsella. I wonder why they didn’t put a cupcake on the cover, the picture would have been complete. Grrr.

End of the rant.

Runaway is a collection of eight short stories, long enough to develop their plot and characters nicely. Each one is around 40 pages long, except for the last one. The short stories included in the collection are: Runaway, Chance, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks and Powers.

It is rather difficult to write about short stories. I’ve decided against retelling one or the other but will try to decipher a pattern, a common theme instead. In a nutshell, Alice Munro brushes through the characters’ lives and show them at different times of their existence.

Runaway is the title of the first short story. The French translator chose to call it Fugitives, which means “runaway” but in plural and in the feminine form. So, for a French reader seeing the book on a shelf, it is about runaway women. It’s an interpretation, I wonder if Alice Munro approved of it, but it’s a good assumption. All the characters live moments away from their routine or tell the moment they derailed from their usual days and how it affected their future.

All the main characters are women and in every story, this character has another woman in her shadow, a disquieting presence, someone who seems friendly or loving in appearance but has a negative influence on the character’s course of life. It is a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor, a housekeeper, a rival or a former rival in her man’s affections. The men in their lives are weak or tasteless. They lack personality, they’re accepting to the point of lacking a backbone. They got into a relationship because it was a thing to be done or because they didn’t want to be lonely. They all fail their partner, voluntarily or not. The passionate ones are on the dark side, they drink or they cheat. The others get sick and trap their wives in a caretaker role or die suddenly.

These women live a linear life and the short stories either reveal how they got there or picture a moment when their life made a detour. They got sidetracked. For example, Robin goes to the theatre in the nearby city once per year and it’s her alone time, stolen moments for herself, away from her ailing sister. They aren’t really unhappy but the reader has the feeling that their lives could have been better. If they had behaved differently. If they hadn’t settled with the wrong man. If they had been more assertive about their wishes, their needs. Most of them were born at a time when women had fewer options in life. Grace thinks, after meeting a lovely and perfectly dressed young woman:

She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men –people, everybody—thought they should be like. Beautiful, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should ben to be fallen in love with.

They were expected to quit their jobs when they got married. University degrees were a means to be where the men with a bright future were. If they stray away from the designated path, they have to face the consequences. Juliet lives with Eric and has a daughter with him. We’re at the end of the 1960s and they’re not married. They live in Whale Bay, in British Columbia. When she visits her family near Toronto, she realizes how much her choice cost to her parents. Her father lost his teaching job. They’re ostracized and they’d rather pick her up at a farther train station than welcome her in their town’s station.

Runaway gives glimpses of the lives of women born before 1950. It is written in a sober tone, the angle shifting from one heroin to the other. I don’t have other quotes to share as I have the book in French. Alice Munro puts her characters on stage, giving a face and a voice to millions of quiet Canadian women. They’re average people, they could be you or me. They don’t live a grand passion, they have a quiet domestic life and yet, they’re unique. I felt like wandering in a cemetery, stopping randomly in front of a grave and listening to someone quietly telling me about the person buried there. Who she was. What happened to her. What event changed her life. It’s a lovely promenade with them.

A big thank you to the friend who gave me Runaway because I’m not sure I would have bought it myself, Nobel Prize or not. It’s been sitting on my shelf and became part of my #TBR20 project.

PS: A word about the #TBR20 project. I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms: I haven’t bought myself a book in months and I’m itching to visit a bookstore. I’ve managed to refrain by purchasing books as gifts and getting book related items, like bookmarks or a mug with Shakespearian insults on it. *sigh* Still 6 books to go.


  1. October 13, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    You’re so brave – #TBR20 is hard!
    And I agree with you about the cover – poor Alice Munro does not deserve that. I have to read more of her too.


    • October 14, 2015 at 7:09 am

      I know, terrible cover, right?


  2. October 14, 2015 at 8:51 am

    I enjoyed your review, Emma. Alice Munro’s Selected Stories is sitting in my TBR, so I wonder if it contains a few of the ones featured in Runaway. She’s very good at the minutiae of everyday existence, the small disappointments and challenges that life throws at us. As you say, her stories give a face and a voice to quiet, seemingly unexceptional women.

    I’m really impressed with your determination to stick to the TBR20 – not long to go now!


    • October 15, 2015 at 6:52 am

      Thanks Jacqui. I always included the list of the stories included in the collection I’ve read so everyone can see whether they have them somewhere else or not.
      It’s interesting to read a collectio put together by the author themselves. I guess the sequence of the stories and the ones they picked mean something. It’s like a music album. Too bad writers can’t choose their covers while musicians have their word.

      She is very good at describing our mundane lives.

      I knew when I started the #TBR20 challenge that it would take me almost half of the year since I read about 50 books per year. (That’s all I can squeaze in my tight schedule, unfortunately)


  3. October 14, 2015 at 5:35 pm

    I’m struggling with #tbr20 myself. I notice I’ve accepted more review books, which I suspect is an outlet valve.

    You’re absolutely right about the cover. It’s not just pink either, it’s pink and curvy. I don’t think the curves are an accident.

    Anyway, good review as ever. The sameness of the men puts me off a bit. I’ve no problem with underwritten men, but in some ways I’d rather the male characters were just offstage than samey. Perhaps though it’s because they’re not the focus, and it takes focus to bring out with such clarity such otherwise ordinary lives as those of her primary characters.

    Six isn’t so bad, ganbatte Emma-san!


    • October 15, 2015 at 7:01 am

      I’m glad to see I’m not the only one struggling. As Guy would probably say, there are worse addictions than addiction to literature.
      I don’t accept review books, otherwise, my TBR will never decrease at all.

      About the cover: I hadn’t noticed the curvy, but you’re right. It’s in total contradiction with the quote I mentioned in my billet.

      About the men in the stories. There’s a sameness like there is one for fathers in Austen’s books. They are nice but weak (Pride & Prejudice), nice but obnoxious (Emma), nice but dead (Sense & Sensibility) None of them stands out as a remarkable man. That’s what I meant.

      I hope to read one of the six next week while I’m on holiday. The #TBR20 comes on top of the Book Club readings.


  4. October 14, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    i’ve just bought this for my mum who was complaining that the reading list for her course on the short story was rather dull and predictable. Thanks to your review for giving me the idea! I’m struggling with my TBR challenge too and I have only 12 not 20 to read.


    • October 15, 2015 at 7:04 am

      Thanks for your message, I’m glad I could be useful. That’s one of the purposes of this blog.
      I hope she’ll enjoy Runaway.

      PS: I’d add Fame by Daniel Kehlmann, if she’s still looking for alternatives. And I have a “short stories” category, if it helps.


      • October 17, 2015 at 11:14 am

        I’ve just bought her some Katherine Mansfield so for now she’s satisfied. but i will certainly take a look at that short stories category ready for the next time she wants something


  5. October 15, 2015 at 11:18 pm

    What is #TBR20? There are always these cool hashtags, but I have no clue what they mean. Also, if you look at great books by women published awhile ago, notice how the covers get worse with each new edition.


    • October 18, 2015 at 11:16 am

      #TBR20 is a project where you commit to read 20 books you own before buying new ones. My list is here.

      I’ll have a look at older covers. To be fair, this one is not the only French cover for Runaway. But this is a special edition, like an upper version of the book. How can you do that to such a talented writer?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. October 17, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    I echo Max re: the male characters.
    I struggle with reviews of short stories too, but I think overall it’s better to pick a theme or general theme even if the stories don’t all fit the generalization.


    • October 18, 2015 at 11:19 am

      I think you’d like it anyway.

      I’ve just finished another collection of short stories, Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach. Now I have to find an angle to write about it.


      • October 18, 2015 at 4:39 pm

        I have that one here. I don’t think I’ll read it for GLM though as I’ve already picked my titles.


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