“The Jack Randa Hotel”
by Alice Munro
from Open Secrets

Trevor

This story begins with an airplane making a shaky landing that has all on board a bit on edge before they laugh in relief. And indeed the story itself has the ability to take us from regret and sadness to comedy as Munro focuses on one of the women on the plane: Gail.

Gail, we learn, is on her way to Australia, a place she’s never been. She’s going there now on a bit of a fool’s errand: Will — not her husband, but someone she’d been with for years — left her in Canada to follow a young lover to Australia. Since that time, for Gail, Walley, Canada, has been barely a backdrop:

All the trees and streets in Walley, all the liberating views of the lake and the comfort of the shop. Useless cutouts, fakes and props. The real scene was hidden from her in Australia.

So to Australia she goes because to her that’s where life went. I don’t think she’s thinks she’ll find happiness in Australia. I don’t think she has a real plan to execute when she gets there. It’s simply where the throbbing is, and she must tend to it.

The first third of the story shows a bit of Gail’s life with Will. She runs a shop. He teaches school. As she reflects on this, during the bumpy plane ride, she wonders when it was she lost the upper hand in their relationship, which is such a sad thought: the union as a power struggle, the partner as a slippery opponent to be directed with delicacy and utilized for self-fulfillment. And yet, there next to her on the plane is a couple that looks very familiar. The husband and wife are on their way to Hawaii so the husband can play in a left-handed golf tournament. His wife is there to support him, and there she sits with a headache and regret. And so Gail reflects on what it means to have a relationship at all.

It doesn’t seem like “The Jack Randa Hotel” is going to have much levity. But then Gail arrives in Brisbane, finds Will’s new home, and steals a letter from his mailbox. The letter, it turns out, is stamped “return to sender”; it’s one Will wrote that was sent back to him because the addressee was recently deceased, though Will does not know this. We quickly see he didn’t even know the addressee but sent the letter on a whim. Gail infers from the letter that Will is a bit lonely in Brisbane, a bit out of place in the country as well as in his lover’s young group of friends. Will, you see, not only left Gail in Walley; that’s where his own mother still lives as well. And so Will reached out to the only person in Brisbane with the same last name: Thornaby.

For her part, Gail goes to the recently departed Ms. Thornaby’s apartment, sees it’s up to be leased, and moves into a new home and a new identity. A new identity that feels quite comfortable taking Will down a peg or two. Here’s part of her first hilarious missive as Ms. Thornaby:

You may know that the name comes from Thorn Abbey, the ruins of which are still to be seen in Northumberland. The spelling varies — Thornaby, Thornby, Thornabbey, Thornabby. In the Middle Ages the name of the Lord of the Manor would be taken as a surname by all the people working on the estate, including laborers, blacksmiths, carpenters, etc. As a result there are many people scattered around the world bearing a name that in the strict sense they have no right to. Only those who can trace their descent from the family in the twelfth century are the true, armigerous Thornabys. That is, they have the right to display the family coat of arms. I am one of these Thornabys and since you do not mention anything about the coat of arms and do not trace your ancestry back beyond this William I assume that you are not. My grandfather’s name was Jonathan.

The remainder of the story is a comical — though, under the surface, desperate and very unhealthy — back and forth between Gail and Will, who receives his share of chastisement from this stranger in the letters and gradually comes to understand that something is going on, that perhaps he doesn’t have the upper hand. Gail enjoys the new Gail, or “Ms. Thornaby.”

As a story that moves and entertains, “The Jack Randa Hotel” is a lot of fun. But Munro is always exploring more than she’s entertaining, and “The Jack Randa Hotel” is a rather dark examination of relationships — that “upper hand” — and what brings people together, seemingly against sense. Gail is no one I’d like to trifle with, but she’s an intelligent woman who is willing to go against sense in more ways than one. By adopting a new persona, she can say things to Will she never would otherwise, she can maintain some sense that they are still in a relationship, and she can even hope he might follow her back to Canada.

In the end, we’ve been through quite a bit of turbulence, real turbulence, real risk, and we have to look around and maybe chuckle a bit to find ourselves still in one piece after a brush with the edge. But this is not the end. Not really. That onset of relief, which feels like joy, can dissipate quickly.


Betsy

“The Jack Randa Hotel” is so perfect in every way, so entertaining, so funny, so interlocking, so echoing, so various, so changeable, so like life and at the same time so new that I can hardly bring myself to say one single thing about it.

It is the best epistolary fiction I ever read, and I adore epistolary fiction.

It is also a love letter to the way we misunderstand things — the way Gail hears, not once, but twice, “Jack Randa,” as in “randy jack,” when what was actually said was “jacaranda.” The jacaranda is an Australian tree which in the spring blooms a “shade of silvery-blue, or silvery-purple.”

The jacaranda is a color “so beautiful, so delicate that you would think it would shock everything into quietness, into contemplation.”

But if life always knew how to act, that would not actually be life, would it?

Gail mistakes the name of the tree, just as she is mistakes randyness for love, and temporary for permanent, and lasting for fleeting. It is as if the very essence of life is not getting it right. It is as if the condition of life is to not perceive almost anything right.

The story seems to me like a trapeze act or a fleeting blossom: perfect, impossible, full of tricks and daring, each little exquisite maneuver executed and done and over before you realize it, and lasting, in the memory as only an impression of perfection, an impression of life (its speed and fleeting momentariness), with all its mistakes and glory.

Is every sentence perfect? Every shift? Yes.

The story is an entertainment and a hymn: full of sadness and loss and haphazard determination, and funny, very funny, as well as dead-on perfect about men and women. It’s as good as “Wigtime,” except it’s way better.

And that’s all I can bring myself to say, as if to pin it down would kill it, the way the beauty of a gorgeous bug or ephemeral butterfly is nothing to what it was before we put it in the case.

Thanks, Alice. Thanks so much. I love how you can write. You make me laugh.

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By |2019-01-11T13:25:56-04:00January 11th, 2019|Categories: Alice Munro, Book Reviews|18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Howard January 11, 2019 at 4:02 pm

    Short plot summary: Gail sells up and travels to the other side of the world in order to try and regain the upper hand in her relationship with Will.

    Trevor, I agree this story is a lot of fun. You say you wouldn’t like to trifle with Gail but I must say I admire her courage to, as it were, risk all and ‘go where the throbbing is’ – as you rather wonderfully put it. I must be an old romantic.
    Also I don’t find ‘the union as a power struggle’ a sad idea – and take to it as a duck to water. Maybe that says more about 66 year old me. Ha ha.
    Small point. At the beginning of the story I don’t think it’s a landing, I think the plane failed to take-off. Is this important? No idea. Ha ha (again).

    Betsy, I really share your enthusiasm for this story, which gets 8 out of 10 from me. ‘A love letter to the way we misunderstand things’. Wow, I love that idea. I’m hoping it will help me appreciate why Munro chose the story’s title – which at the moment I’m inclined to think is a bit of a Munro red herring. (I think she’s fond of red herrings.)
    I’m a Brit, so the jacaranda tree was not known to me until I looked it up. The Collins online dictionary I use assures me that the correct pronunciation of ‘jacaranda’ is indeed ‘jack randa’. Assuming this is correct, then I’d be inclined to say Gail – as a Canadian presumably unfamiliar with Australian jacarandas – misinterpreted what she heard the young man with the red hair say. Munro doesn’t explicitly tell us that Gail later realises her mistake, but we next read the Miramar manager telling Gail about the old man: “He was the owner of the Jacaranda Hotel”. I suppose this implies that by now Gail has indeed realised her mistake.

    I wanted to respond quickly to your posts. Will follow up with a few more comments shortly, if that’s okay.

  2. Howard January 11, 2019 at 5:30 pm

    Munro is all about plot? I kind of agree with that. And this story demonstrates it par excellence. For me the main ‘wow’ moment starts when Gail’s first letter to Will appears in the text. As I read the letter I was confused, asking myself how a dead woman could have replied to Will. Then we quickly learn Gail wrote it and that, wow, not only that, but she’s rented the dead woman’s apartment. And then I was surprised by the confident tone of her letter (perhaps not least by the snobbish aspect). This sequence ratchets up hugely the impression of Gail as a confident and decisive person, perhaps even reckless. In truth at this point I even wondered if she had criminal intent and I was reading a Munro crime thriller.

    I also thought Will’s return to Canada was an impressively surprising plot twist. As was the very ending of the story.

    The story’s only weakness was Will talking about his relationship with Sandra in his letters to ‘Catherine Thornaby’. That didn’t seem realistic.

    Oh, Munro sometimes makes me work really hard. Is it just me? I have to confess I really struggled with this section (on more or less the final page):

    – “Gail! Galya!
    – “Talk to me, Gail. Answer me. I know you’re there.
    – “I can hear you. I can hear your heart beating through the keyhole and your stomach rumbling and your brain jumping up and down.
    – “I can smell you through the keyhole. You. Gail.”
    – Words most wished for can change. Something can happen to them, while you are waiting. Love—need—forgive. – Love—need—forever. The sound of such words can become a din, a battering, a sound of hammers in the street. – And all you can do is run away, so as not to honor them out of habit.

    Firstly it was that ‘Words most wished for can change’. It took me a long time to realise you have to read it in reverse: that what Munro is saying in her own brilliant but deliberately obscure way is that the words Gail is wishing for: ‘Love—need—forgive. Love—need—forever’ can be changed (by reality, no less – ha ha) into what Will actually shouted through the door, which was something a whole lot less romantic (although something nevertheless quite interesting and original, no?).
    Secondly, this took me even longer: ‘And all you can do is run away, so as not to honor them out of habit.’ I think I finally figured that what’s being said here is simply that Gail has decided she shouldn’t open the door to Will. That if she does, then her relationship with him will just resume where it left off. And that if she wants to regain the upper hand (her own phrase, from earlier in the story), she needs to hold out longer. She needs to up the ante – and ‘run away’ back to Canada and make him chase her.

    Do you think I’ve understood this correctly?

  3. Betsy January 11, 2019 at 5:37 pm

    Howard – you remark: “Oh, Munro sometimes makes me work really hard. Is it just me?”

    So true, so true, so true, Howard!!
    I couldn’t agree more. Munro makes us work really hard!

    My theory about this is that she often makes sense on a ladder levels.

    More on whther your take makes sense to the rest of us in a few. IE, you might be way ahead of us this time!

  4. Betsy January 11, 2019 at 5:38 pm

    Well. Just got back from babysitting for the grandkids.

    I meant to say: Munro often makes sense on a ladder of levels.

  5. Trevor Berrett January 11, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks, Howard! I’m so glad you’re sharing your thoughts with us. I am not able to respond as well as I’d like to right now, but I just wanted to jump in here and let you know I will!

  6. Howard January 12, 2019 at 6:55 am

    I’m still working on the title. There’s definitely a motif in the story to do with name variations/confusions/ambiguities and mishearing/misinterpreting:
    1. Gail / Galah birds: ‘“What are those birds I see everywhere?” “Galah birds,” the young man says, making it sound something like her childhood name.’
    2. Gail’s discussion of the various forms of the Thornaby name.
    3. The way that Will explains Gail’s confusion re the butterflies/flakes of gold and the Perseus myth: ‘Will told her that she was confusing Jove and Jehovah.’
    4. Jack Randa and Jacaranda of course.
    But at the moment I just see it as a motif, running in and out of the plot, creating an ambience, but not very central to the story.

  7. Howard January 12, 2019 at 9:17 am

    These are some of my outstanding queries with the story. If anyone can cast any light on them, that would be great. I know some seem trivial, but I’d argue that hidden in the apparently trivial detail of a Munro story, in all its richness, there are sometimes important clues.
    1. Why does Gail’s shop fill up with women after Will goes away?
    2. Not long after Will goes, Gail starts hanging out with Will’s mother. This slightly curious turn of events is never explained explicitly. It’s a subconscious move to try and stay close to Will? Hence her becoming ‘vaguely hopeful’?
    3. On the envelope Gail steals from Will and Sandra’s mailbox, why doesn’t the word ‘Miramar’ appear in Catherine Thornaby’s address?
    4. Gail is strangely unmoved by Cleata’s death?
    5. What is to be made of this: ‘And from long ago a feeling comes back to her—the feeling of watching a street, the visible bit of a street, where a car is expected to appear, or may appear, or may not appear. She even remembers now the cars themselves—a blue Austin mini, a maroon Chevrolet, a family station wagon. Cars in which she travelled short distances, illicitly and in a bold daze of consent. Long before Will.’ Illicitly? ‘Consent’? Presumably this is a reference to a past era of supposedly ‘free love’ (where the subterfuge involved undermines the very principle)?
    6.Not sure what to make of the Jacaranda Hotel itself: ‘Later in the day, she could not walk or sit there because the verandas of the hotel were always crowded with uproarious beer-drinkers, and the park was within their verbal or even bottle-throwing range.’ The down at heel neighbourhood where Gail is staying hasn’t been played up as a particularly rough or dangerous neighbourhood – Gail seems comfortable walking around it – so this seems incongruous?
    7. What to make of her saying to the young man with red hair: “If you would ever like a place to sit down while you’re waiting, you know you’re welcome to come upstairs.” I guess the bigger question here is: what do we think is Gail’s ‘true’ character?
    Thanks.

  8. David January 12, 2019 at 11:19 am

    I have not read this story, but reading Trevor’s review I had a few flashbacks to Munro’s “Eskimo”, which I did read. Woman travelling alone on a very long distance plane trip? Check. Travel related to a dysfunctional or broken romantic relationship? Check. Encounter with another couple on the plane headed for Hawaii? Check. I think the similarities might end there, but it does make me wonder how much Munro might have been aware of even these superficial similarities when writing these stories.

  9. Heath January 12, 2019 at 2:56 pm

    I read in an interview at this time that Munro was reading Muriel Spark during the time of writing ‘Open Secrets’ and Spark’s influence comes across so strongly in this story, with its near-metaphysical comedy, some of Munro’s broadest and most sparkling. I’m reminded in particular of the death-driven vacationer in ‘The Driver’s Seat.’

  10. BETSY PELZ January 14, 2019 at 8:44 am

    Well! Terrific questions, Howard!

    1. Why does Gail’s shop fill up with women after Will goes away?

    I think the key to this shift is what came just before. Gail has noticed the wife on the plane who has the headache. Gail thinks: “Wives have diamond rings and headaches…They still do. The truly successful ones do. They have chubby husbands, lefthanded golfers, bent on a lifelong course of appeasement.” Gail then thinks up a quip to tell Will – part of her own habit of “lifelong appeasement.”

    Immediately, the story jumps back to the period right after Will left, when Gail noticed the women in the shop. No longer in the position of appeasing Will, she has time to notice other women. This is a pleasure to her. They told stories about men. – Some men who were divorcing their wives “offered to sell back to the wives cars and furniture that the wives themselves had paid for.”

    Why does the shop fill up with women? Gail has been shafted and she welcomes all the badmouthing weak women love to indulge in. It’s a stage in her weakness. Maybe she will make some changes and feel more whole and less weak.

    2. Not long after Will goes, Gail starts hanging out with Will’s mother. This slightly curious turn of events is never explained explicitly. It’s a subconscious move to try and stay close to Will? Hence her becoming ‘vaguely hopeful’?

    It seems to me Gail uses Cleata to withdraw from the easy temptation to badmouth Will. Drinks with Cleata are a step up from badmouthing men in general, which is a cheap and easy response to being shafted. One gets the sense she likes Cleata. And in her presence, Gail is prevented from taking the easy way out – that this situation is ALL Will’s fault. (ALtho Munro can be hard on men, she is never easy on women.)

    Then there is the drinking. Cleata is a “serious drinker.” Women in Munro drink, some to excess. IT remains to be seen at this point whether Gail will let herself drift into the comfort of drunkenness. “Prayer Circle” has a woman do just that when her husband leaves.

    But in addition, Gail has always been attracted to the “otherness” of Cleata and Will – When she first visited their house, Gail thought “This is how really civilized people live.” One senses some disorganization in Gail’s past. She finds a lot about how Cleata and Will live “soothing”.. She liked “the foreign pleasantness” of Will and Cleata.

    Also – Gail had had a baby die from carbon monoxide. She had had a immense, life altering, deep, terrible sorrow. That she picked people who were soothing is no surprise.

    But then – there was the fact that at first, with Will, she had “the upper hand.” Sitting with Cleata she is able to confront the question – When had she lost the upper hand?

    This is Munro being hard on women. What kind of partnership is it when “upper hand” is what defines it?

    The fact is that they reached a point where Will could reduce Gail to a black “despair” – this despair caused by his “contempt for her. This is horrible. This is worse than the simple appeasement and the headache that the golf-widow gets. This is ghastly – that Will appears to feel contempt for her. Their life has become a “bleak country”.

    Munro has Gail ask, ironically, wehter this happens to other women. It happens to most women. They have to get to the other side of it – they have to get the “upper hand” of themselves.

    That is what we are yearning for – for Gail to get the upper hand of her own embrace of powerlessness.

    It’s easy to see how Gail could have fallen so low — she had lost a baby in terrible circumstances and wanted Will to soothe her…and he got tired of that … and now we are going to see if she can RECOVER.

    And then the story has her back on the plane to Australia – because this comfortable “soothing” house is no longer the “scene”. So she goes to Brisbane in “disguise”. She is waking up.

    3. On the envelope Gail steals from Will and Sandra’s mailbox, why doesn’t the word ‘Miramar’ appear in Catherine Thornaby’s address?
    Good question!! I never noticed this! I think it only appears associated with Gail – because this “scene” – her living at the “Miramar” is to be associated tih a miracle – Gail coming back to life. this is what Munro wants to know. What could bring a woman who is dead back to life? And I don’t mean “Thornaby”. I mean it is Gail who is dead. Even her disguise is a creepy likeness of death. So, the Miramar is the Mira-cle where Gail will rise from the dead.

    Curiously, in Gail’s first letter to Will, Gail adopts a new identity – an alter ego who is familiar with will’s world and from that same lineage. As the old Ms. Thornaby, Gail has the upper hand again. She is living in the old lady’s apartment! On ‘Haughty” STreet! (My take on Hawtre) More upper hand.

    IT’s very funny that Ms Thornaby has “moved into a new existence a few blocks away” as Gail has moved into her new dead-in-life identity as “Mrs. Massie from Oklahoma. She deepens the disguise with housedresses that middleaged women in the area wear.

    It’s very funny that Gail knows that Will will have to put Ms Thornaby and her “armigerous-ness” in her place. But at the same time, he admits that his young companion is never home. Gail is definitiely getting “the upper hand.” she realizes that in his new life with the young temptress, Will feels “deeply unnappreciated.” I guess the young woman is not very appeasing.

    They, Will and Gail, have both gone to the “underworld”. Gail has moved into a way station that may or may not prove to be a miracle. Will doesn’t know that the “Miramar” exists – because it wouldn’t have been in the phone book where he found Catherine Thornaby’s name.

    4. Gail is strangely unmoved by Cleata’s death?

    Will mentions in his letter to “Thornaby” that she reminds him of his mother!!!!! Gail writes back – ” You may be looking for another mother here, but that hardly obliges me to be one.” !!!!!

    We are reminded that when Gail met Will – she was a mother who had lost her child. Will is the son who cannot seem to leave his mother…

    Gail gives Will quite a comeuppance in her second letter as Thornaby – that his May-December relationship is silly – that maybe he should grow up – that myabe he should become a father!!!

    Gail knew that Cleata was ill. And – it is possible that although she found Cleata’s house and way of life “soothing”, Gail is ready to assume a life of her own. Thus explaining her readiness to move on from life as Cleata had it arranged.

    She realizes: “cleata is dead and Will is alone except for Sandy , and Sandy has perhaps stopped being of much use to him.”

    Gail is ready to assume the next phase of coming back from the dead – that of perhpas having a marriage where Will’s mother is not the third leg.

    5. What is to be made of this: ‘And from long ago a feeling comes back to her—the feeling of watching a street, the visible bit of a street, where a car is expected to appear, or may appear, or may not appear. She even remembers now the cars themselves—a blue Austin mini, a maroon Chevrolet, a family station wagon. Cars in which she travelled short distances, illicitly and in a bold daze of consent. Long before Will.’ Illicitly? ‘Consent’? Presumably this is a reference to a past era of supposedly ‘free love’ (where the subterfuge involved undermines the very principle)?

    Gail is holed up in the Miramar because Will has discovered that Catherine Thornaby is dead!
    He has written a couple of letters that are both puzzled and attmepting to gain “the upper hand”.

    Gail is waiting for some solution to appear…the way she used to wait for lovers to appear…thinking they might be a solution at the time ….but of course they were not going to be.

    This is a turning point. Does Will regain the upper hand? Does Gail return to being used by people?

    6.Not sure what to make of the Jacaranda Hotel itself: ‘Later in the day, she could not walk or sit there because the verandas of the hotel were always crowded with uproarious beer-drinkers, and the park was within their verbal or even bottle-throwing range.’ The down at heel neighbourhood where Gail is staying hasn’t been played up as a particularly rough or dangerous neighbourhood – Gail seems comfortable walking around it – so this seems incongruous?

    What’s important about the Jacaranda Hotel?
    First of all – the old man (the lover of the young red-haired man) who dies used to own it. This old man is death itself. Gail is “down under” in the underwold. Will she allow herself to be held there? the old man dies while she is holding his hand. His grip is deathly. Will she be dragged back down to death by Will? Will she allow him to humiliate her with his “contempt”? She sees Will as she passes by in the ambulance – recognizes him – as she will always recognize him. Will she die here? (Or give up the ghost of selfhood?) Or will she come back to life and to some other idea than that one of a couple needs to have the “upper hand”?

    Anyway – The old man owned the Jacaranda. And he’s the one who seems to want to drag her to hell with him…

    What’s important about the JAcaranda? It’s the fact that Gail misunderstands the name – just the way she (and many other women) misunderstand the true nature of marriage. She think marriage is an arrangement where one person has to have the upper hand. She also thinks the hotel is like a man who is “randy”. In reality the JAcaranda is a gorgeous tree of an ethereal blue.

    What’s important about the Jacaranda? It’s that she’s got it wrong. Just like she’s got marriage wrong.

    7. What to make of her saying to the young man with red hair: “If you would ever like a place to sit down while you’re waiting, you know you’re welcome to come upstairs.” I guess the bigger question here is: what do we think is Gail’s ‘true’ character?

    There’s nothing sexual here. For one thing, it’s pretty obvious that the young man is the lover of the older man – and that the relationship is at this point very unhappy, both due to the old man’s real nature and also to the fact that he’s even worse now that he’s ill. The young man is trapped in something loveless. It’s like a foreshadoing of what could happen to Will and Gail if they keep on in their old ways.

    What this is is a temptation. It’s a temptation that Gail might get distracted by comiserating with the young man or comforting him as if he were her son. It’s a fleeting distraction where the temptation is misplaced maternity, just the way Will saw misplaced maternity in her in the beginning.

    Munro is hard on women, but not this time. Munro has put the red-haired man out of reach. He’s out of reach and Gail knows it. What he is is a mirror of herself. But at an earlier stage. She is moving beyond him – beginning to see the jacaranda in bloom – although she still does not know its proper name.

    What’s key is that Gail is ready to go back to the upper world now – to Walley – and from there, send Will a little box with a question in it:

    “Now it’s up to you to follow me.”

  11. betsy pelz January 14, 2019 at 8:47 am

    My apologies for the typos here and there above. I did not write this, as I usually do, on a separate file in my computer.

  12. Trevor Berrett January 14, 2019 at 2:49 pm

    Oh boy! I have a lot of catching up to do now before I comment so I can see what Betsy wrote. I’m about to have lunch and will do so then.

    As a FYI, I will be posting our thoughts on “A Wilderness Station” this Friday, and I think that is another very rich story!

  13. Trevor Berrett January 14, 2019 at 3:11 pm

    As I’ve been thinking about the story and reading the comments above, I keep feeling that the story is exploring the ties that bind us to others, and how those ties can sometimes be slight, selfish, unhealthy, and even dangerous to the point they should be cut — but we don’t want to. Even though these ties are holding her back, keeping her from moving on, she wants them there for some reason. Security? Lust? Love? Pride?

    To me, then, her ongoing relationship with Cleata is just an attempt to stay linked to something that is now simply part of the past. Will has left. This allows her to still feel some connection to him. It even allows her to think he may come back. I think this connection with Cleata is weak. She goes for her own selfish reasons, and I think that’s why she isn’t particularly affected by Cleata’s death on a personal level; it’s still all about how this affects Will and, to an extent, how she can use it to keep him.

    Her connection to Will is very sad to me. She may feel that she is becoming new, getting the upper hand, but there is no indication anywhere in the story that this is true. I think it unlikely Will will follow her. She’s been quite threatening to him, after all. What she’s done is not romantic — it’s obsessive. It’s much more about Gail’s sense of self as related to Will than it is about Will. Does she even love him? It seems to me he has simply become a token for her. If he comes back, she’s won.

    I agree with Betsy that the Jack Randa Hotel is important mainly because it shows Gail’s continual misunderstanding or misinterpretation of events. I’d never considered the owner to be death, so that’s something I’ll have to think about. I do think his relationship with the young man is important as well, though I haven’t read it recently enough and with that particular relationship in mind to see how it plays through the story. I am very interested to do just that now, though, since I do think their relationship is also thorny. Then again, we get most of what we see of them from Gail, who isn’t always seeing things straight, as intelligent as she is.

    I think, then, Betsy and I differ on the end of the story. I don’t necessarily think Gail’s in a good place. If she expects Will to follow her, I think she is still deluded. That she even wants him to follow her suggests she hasn’t changed much from the beginning of the story when she flew to Australia to maintain some tenuous connection to someone who has done something terrible but who, nevertheless, has done it. Maintaining a relationship with Cleata, going to Australia, writing the letters — this is not a recipe for recovery.

  14. Howard January 15, 2019 at 6:37 am

    Thank you very much for your detailed reply Betsy. With many of my questions as much as anything I’m first of all trying to pin down the plot. Beyond that, to me it’s a game of interpreting the characters of the various protagonists.

    I’m glad you quoted that sentence from the opening section, because I have a question about that too: ‘They have chubby husbands, left-handed golfers, bent on a lifelong course of appeasement.’ Can’t that be read two ways? As in: who is appeasing who?
    ‘They have chubby husbands, left-handed golfers WHO ARE bent on a lifelong course of appeasement.’
    This is Larry ‘applying finger-pressure to points on her wrist and palm’ to try and cure Phyllis’s headache, and saying “Poor lamb”.
    ‘They have chubby husbands, left-handed golfers, THEY ARE WIVES bent on a lifelong course of appeasement.’
    This is Phyllis, accompanying her golfer husband on trips she doesn’t really want to go on.
    I just raise this as a point of interest about Munro’s style. I don’t see Gail or Will as big appeasers so I don’t think whether Phyllis or Larry is the appeaser has much bearing on the main story .

    Why does Gail’s shop fill up with women after Will goes away? Thank you for pointing out this can be a subjective perception by Gail. I hadn’t considered that. After I posted the question I did think about the angle of jilted Gail becoming a bit of a beacon for other single women and other disgruntled women.

    Cleata. I agree that Gail very much likes Cleata and her house. It seems to represent some permanence to her. And she’s drawn to its more intellectual atmosphere.

    ‘Miramar’ not in the address. Yes, you’re right, this might simply be a foible of how Australian phone directories of the era presented postal addresses.

    I don’t agree that Munro is hard on women – well, only in the sense that she’s hard on nearly everyone!

    And once she gets to Australia I don’t agree that Gail is in a big negative ‘deathly’ state. On the contrary, I think she’s energized by her decisive ‘risk it all’ actions. The tone in her letters to Will as ‘Catherine Thornaby’ is confident, almost triumphant. (As I said in one of my other posts, this is one of the great developments in the plot – that the letters suddenly reveal what Gail is capable of.) And the sick old man who towards the end of the story is ‘holding on—with great force, it seemed, enough force to hold her back, when she would have sprung towards Will’ – I see that as positive for Gail. That symbolically his grip is encouraging her not to give in to her impulse to go to Will, but to wait and raise the stakes, do the strong thing and return to Canada without having any contact with Will. (Then … make Will come to her.)

    I note that neither you nor Trevor rate Gail’s chances of success very highly. I think she has at least three things in her favour: with her stunt she’s pulled off something romantically bold, dramatic and extreme (for the delectation of a drama teacher no less); Will’s relationship with Sandra and his move to Australia are patently failing; and Will’s mother has just died (as you say, he’s the son who sometimes cannot seem to leave his mother). Practically and emotionally he’s in a vulnerable position.

    Cleata dying. Would Will have realised when he did that ‘Catherine Thornaby’ is Gail, if he hadn’t made that trip back to Canada when his mother dies? (Another great bit of plot development.) Gail tells us early in the story that she thinks she is unlikely to be mentioned in Cleata’s letters to Will. So possibly only when he actually gets back to Walley does Will realise Gail has left town.

    If Gail and Will get back together, will it last? No idea. Ha ha.

    Gail feeling maternal towards the young man with red hair. That hadn’t occurred to me. Will file that one away for the next time I read the story. Must admit I was inclining towards linking it with the ‘from long ago a feeling comes back to her—the feeling of watching a street, the visible bit of a street, where a car is expected to appear…’ section. In other words, that it is sexual. After all, her realisation that they’re a gay couple only comes after she makes her “come upstairs” suggestion to the young man. And I tend to read the old man’s incoherent tirade at Gail in the park as being him trying to fend her off – “you stay away from my young man” etc.

    For me the jury’s still out with the sick old man and the young man with the red hair, and the business with the title and how it features in the story. Which is a mite frustrating, but doesn’t stop me loving the story as one of Munro’s lighter tales, with comparatively little of the ‘bad taste in the mouth’ about it.

  15. Harri T January 15, 2019 at 3:25 pm

    Munro on Munro:
    “I think I used often to write stories that were single paths and I knew, pretty well,what I wanted to happen, and the satisfaction was in making that happen…. Maybe I don´t do that anymore” (1994 interview in Quill and Quire)

    “It’s pointless to go on if you don´t take risks. (1995 Menjin interview)

    That´s what Munro is doing in “Open Secrets”.

    Risks in “The Jack Randa Hotel” for Munro differ from the other stories of “Open Secrets”.

    In the 1994 “Paris Review”, before “Open Secrets” was published but after the story had appeared in “The New Yorker”, Munro mentioned “The Jack Randa Hotel” as a story she wrote as “an entertainment” and thus put it another category.
    It´s easy to decode and expound too much, with same dipsticks as with other “Open Secrets” stories.
    For all that, “The Jack Randa Hotel” is not so different from the rest of the book, has a lot of epistolary fragments and leaves an open ending, but the form is not as complex, perfectly enjoyable as a romantic travel fantasy.
    Maybe Munro explains the evolving of her writing over time with Will`s sentence: “perhaps it is my age – I´m 56 – that urges me to find connections.”

    Alice Munro of course reaches her goal, shows that she is a brilliant comic writer, varying between reality and fantasy in the letters exchanced between Gail and Will. It´s easy to live in fantasy, but to end up, Gail has to escape a real scene with Will to another reality in Canada.
    Holding dead man´s hand she understands that the relationship to Will is dead, although she would have succeeded in luring him back.

    “The Jack Randa Hotel” was also, like many other “Open Secrets” stories, too much for many of Munro´s admirers, albeit for different reason´s than “Carried Away” or “A Real Life”. Not only then, but also later.
    Let´s cite Brad Hooper, more than for 40 years “Booklist” Adult Books Editor, from his 2008 “The Fiction of Alice Munro: An Appreciation”. All he had to say about “The Jack Randa Hotel”:
    “It presents a completely unconvincing character and a plot, that with too many improbable twists, has the feel of a-made-for-television script. Additionally, it carries a nasty tone that not only is uncomfortable but also unengaging.”

    Short summary: Like Betsy, I enjoyed it enormously!

  16. Howard January 16, 2019 at 5:08 am

    If Brad Hooper had just said Gail was ‘a somewhat unconvincing character’ I could agree with him. ‘The feel of a-made-for-television script’ – yes I can see that. But improbable plot twists – I wonder what he’s thinking of? The things I find improbable I wouldn’t call plot twists. (As I said in other posts, there’s the business about Will writing to a complete stranger and mentioning his ‘young wife’. And there’s Gail’s lack of response to Cleata’s death.)

    And the ‘nasty tone’ – what could Brad Hooper mean?

    Now you’ve pointed out Munro’s take on the story as ‘an entertainment’ and ‘in another category’, I’m also wondering if that might explain the perhaps jokey title of the story.

    There’s one feature that puts it ‘in another category’ of Munro story for me. Just before the first letter enters the text there’s ‘But what is in the letter that Will has written Ms. Catherine Thornaby, on Hawtre Street?’ It’s like for one sentence Munro herself suddenly pops up in the middle of the story. Never read her do that before.

  17. Harri T January 17, 2019 at 11:52 am

    Munro´s irony mocks restrictions of romantic fantasy story genre, but the straight-laced Brad Hoopers feel offended by her unexpected fling.
    “But what is in the letter that Will has written….is an example of a turn used in the genre.
    I think Munro wants the style of letters Gail writes as Ms Thornaby to be malevolent and succeeds, but that does not make the story nasty.

    Munro does not fill in all gaps of open secrets in this or other stories of the book, she likes to keep them mysterious. That´s why there are lots of questions to ask, remaining unanswered; too many questions about this story incline to wear the fun off.

    The title epitomizes Strine, a term used to desribe the broad accent of Australian English, per se an example of the confusions inherent in romantic fantasy genre.

  18. Howard January 17, 2019 at 1:09 pm

    Thanks Harri. That’s interesting about ‘Strine’ – I wasn’t aware of that. My dictionary nevertheless gives both the British English and American English pronunciations of jacaranda as ‘jack randa’. I’ll post the link here, not sure if it will work:
    https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/jacaranda

    For me the questions are most of the fun! Meanwhile I’m somewhat reluctantly coming to the conclusion that many/most of Munro’s texts (her later texts, as you point out) definitely and deliberately don’t supply all the answers. Ha ha.

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