by Alice Munro
from the November 28, 2011 issue of The New Yorker
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. It was 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.