Alice Munro: “Leaving Maverley”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Alice Munro “Leaving Maverley” was originally published in the November 28, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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Even in retirement, Alice Munro remains prolific.  This is her third short story to appear in The New Yorker this year.  If we throw in October 2010, it is her fourth in a short time.  Before that, her most recent story in the magazine was December of 2008, a year when she publisehd four in the magazine.

One thing I enjoy about Munro’s stories is how detailed she can be while covering a vast amount of time in a short space.  “Leaving Maverley” was no exception.  The story begins with a fairly detailed column about an old movie theater named the Capital, “as such theatres often were.”  We learn about Morgan Holly, the owner, and how upset he was when his single employee told he she had to quite because she was going to have a baby.  Here is the detail I’m talking about:

He might have expected this — she had been married for half a year, and in those days you were supposed to get out of the public eye before you began to show — but he so disliked change and the idea of people having private lives that he was taken by surprise.

Those details — the pregnancy and how “those days” dealt with such matters, the private life, change — are important.  But, interestingly, though the story is set up in a way that we might expect it, Morgan Holly and this employee are not particularly important to this story.

The newly pregnant employee has a recommendation for a replacement named Leah, a quiet girl Morgan quite liked because he didn’t want someone gabbing with the customers.  Further, due to her strict father’s command, she was not allowed to watch (or hear) the movies, so Morgan was even happier because that meant less distractions.  The one problem with this employment is that Leah’s father would not allow her to walk home alone so late on a Saturday night.  The solution: the local police officer, Ray Elliot, “who often broke his rounds to watch a little of the movie,” would walk her home those weekend nights.

After a section break, Munro proceeds to give us Ray Elliot’s back story.  A veteran, “[h]e came home with a vague idea that he had to do something meaningful with the life that had so inexplicably been left to him, but he didn’t know what.”  At school, he met Isabel, his teacher, who was married and thirty years old.  She’s beautiful and Ray’s fellow classmates often jest in private that “some guyes got all the luck.”  Here is how economically Munro develops Ray and Isabel’s relationship:

Ray disliked hearing that kind of talk, and the reason was that he had fallen in love with her.  And she with him, which seemed infinitely more surprising.  Itw as preposterous to everybody except themselves.  There was a divorce — a scandal to her well-connected family and a shock to her husband, who had wanted to marry her since they were children.  Ray had an easier time of it than she did, because he had little family to speak of, and those he did have announced that they supposed they wouldn’t be good enough for him now that he was marrying so high up, and they would just stay out of his way in the future.  If they expected any denial or reassurance in response to this, they did not get it.

The story circles back to Leah in the most peculiar way.  It turns out that Isabel has a disease and is unable to have children.  She and Ray never talked about whether they were disappointed by this, but Ray wonders if disappointment weren’t in some way connected to the fact that Isabel wanted to hear all about Leah, the girl Ray walked home on Saturday nights.

I don’t really want to go on here because the story is filled with twists and turns as Ray, Isabel, and Leah live out their lives, for better or for worse.  There is a lot of disappointment, more betrayal, more pregnancies, more loss, and in the end we are left with an incredibly deep portrait of a few complex relationships, and I don’t believe anything turns out as we might predict, though it seems very true to life.

All this in just a few pages, where the pace is swift, matching the inexplicably sudden passing of life.  Yet, despite the brevity, there is enough detail, often in just a phrase, that we can imagine volumes about even the side relationships, like the one between Isabel and her first husband — really all we know is that he was a veteran himself and he had wanted to marry Isabel since they were children, yet how much that says.

7 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “Leaving Maverley””

  1. Trevor says:

    I finished my thoughts above. One of those stories that makes me glad I subscribe to The New Yorker.

  2. Aaron says:

    I’m with you in admiration of Munro’s work and the grasp of time and character that she have, but in comparison to her other recent work, this one allowed me to disengage. I don’t agree that there’s been an “incredibly deep” portrayal of the characters here; instead, I think that as you say, we’re *forced* to “imagine volumes” — not just about their side relationships, but their relationships in general.

    To me, I see this as a story about growing up, mainly for the policeman, who keeps living his life through others — magazines he waits for at the post-office and reads through his wife, the gossip he keeps overhearing, and the small-town experience of being the night-police. He’s vague about what he wants, having come out of the military, but having not gone to college, and though he knows its a miracle that he survived the war, he doesn’t know what is expected of him. To avoid the pressure, he avoids life, avoids choice, avoids — to a great extent — the feelings he keeps having toward Leah.

    In a series of brief encounters, then, Munro succeeds at bringing us to the point where Ray may at last make a choice and need to start living his life, now that he’s escaped Maverley, as has Leah, as has (sadly) his dead wife. But that’s the story I want to read: Munro invites me only to imagine what’s next, not much about what’s happened in an otherwise straightforward slice of narrative. More, as always, here: http://bit.ly/u921le

  3. jerry says:

    I can’t praise Munro enough. Cettainly one of the best stories published in TNY this year.

  4. Ken says:

    I loved this. I saw it as about loss, specifically how one loses interest in the things-of-the-world (a pseudo-Heidegerrian phrase I’ve just coined) as one becomes ill. Tales of Leah (as well as talk of small town affairs and the contents of books and magazines) had bound Isabel and Ray. A childless couple, they enjoy discussing things-of-the-world until she gets sick and, as often happens, she begins to disengage. The story is structured around 3 episodes of gossip about Leah which, in each case, Ray wants to tell his wife. At the end, though, she has died, in the middle one, she is no longer interested, in the first case, it’s an example of the shared gossip noted above. Don’t know why I wrote that last sentence to make the story sound backwards, it isn’t.

  5. Fhiavgareda says:

    i dont understand the story at all, i have an essay to write about it & i am having the biggest writers block ever..

  6. Betsy says:

    In “Leaving Maverly”, Alice Munro tells the story of any number of marriages: the poor craven woman married to the enraged fundamentalist who didn’t allow movies, who wouldn’t give his wife “permission” to leave the house, and who kept moving his family; the young married minister who had an affair with a parishioner and said it was the first time he had ever felt pleasure; then that same minister not marrying the woman who had freed him into pleasure, but marrying another minister; and then the marriage of parishioner herself, whose husband was a drunk. That’s four very bad marriages, a kind of set-up to the odd one that is, in fact, a jewel.

    Ray and Isabel had a love that was “preposterous to everybody but themselves” and they had a marriage where they “could get talking about anything.” In contrast to all the others, this marriage feels like a marriage Alice Munro adores. It certainly is one I adore. But Isabel falls gravely ill, and Ray works nights so he can be with Isabel days. He had thought that he had survived the war for something “meaningful”. Somehow, Munro makes it clear that to Isabel, his devotion was meaningful, and to him as well, as if this is the kind of love anyone would love to have – where you could “talk about anything” and the time would just fly by.

    Later, even after Isabel has become so sick she is, in her own words, “past it” – even after that, Ray remains devoted. In fact, after Isabel reaches a kind of coma and is “stashed” with all the others who will never get well, Ray “could not go off and leave her there all alone.” For four years – a record, he thinks… It was hard, though. During this time, he thinks, “When he had been able to talk to Isabel, everything had been different.”

    In the hospital room, after her death, Ray is startled to feel an “emptiness in place of her”, to feel “a lack of something like air.” To be missed as if you were the other’s air itself – oh, that is to be missed.

    As I said, it feels to me as if Munro is celebrating this kind of love – where status is not the goal – but communion. But of course, Munro says it so much more quietly.

    I just want to comment on their names – that Isabel is beautiful, and that Ray is filled with a kind of light. I don’t think these names are chosen lightly or in irony.

    There is another kind of marriage that Munro alludes to in this story – and that is the marriage between the writer and the reader.

    She tosses off the movie theater projectionist’s annoyance that people had “private lives” – as a kind of prelude to when she speaks about people who read, really read, and people who listen, really listen.

    Munro also alludes to Isabel reading a magazine very like the “New Yorker”, reading its articles and laughing at its “witty cartoons”. (As if Munro is affectionately alluding to her own “marriage” with the New Yorker.)

    Of Leah, Ray says, “There was something in her…that made her want to absorb whatever you said to her, instead of just being thrilled or mystified by it.” Leah is, to him, “rock-bottom thoughtful.”

    It’s as if Munro is describing her ideal reader, and at the same time describing what it is to be a writer.

    Later, of Isabel, Ray thinks of the way he could talk with Isabel, but “not that Isabel would have been looking for answers – rather that she made him feel as if there were more to the subject than he had taken account of.” And again, it is as if Munro is talking about the union of writer and reader – that they must share some of that rock bottom thoughtfulness, and listen to the world, and to each other, just so, not so much looking for answers, as looking to acknowledge there might be more to things than they had at first taken account of.

    This story is like a fond lyric in behalf of these good marriages: where “rock-bottom” thoughtfulness is at the heart, whether it be between husband and wife, or writer and reader.

    There’s more to this fine story, and probably a different more to you, but these are the things that fill its horizons for me at the moment.

  7. Trevor says:

    Betsy, I love your analysis of the relationship between the writer and the reader. I think you’re right, and I myself have been noticing more and more that Munro often has the writing process and subsequent relationships in mind in her stories. I hadn’t considered it in this piece, though, and now feel the need to reread it — again! — with this in mind.

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