Lives of Girls and Women

Reviewed: May 7, 2008
By: Alive Munro / narrated by Judy Mahbey
Publisher: BTC Audio Books
3 CDs, 3 hours, $29.95

Lives of Girls and Women is an unusual work for Alice Munro in that it is almost a novel. True, it can be seen as eight discrete short stories, but the stories are all told from the point of view of Del Jordan, they take us through her life from childhood to the end of high school, and they are about the growth and development of an individual, which is a good description of a certain type of novel.

This audio production is an abridgment of Munro’s second book and contains parts of seven of the eight chapters, omitting the final section which is structurally and narratively different from the rest of the book.

Del’s story is set sometime in the 1940s in a small town called Jubilee. Initially Del and her family live out of town on the Flats Road, a location which seems to be a great embarrassment to her mother, who moves to town with the two children as soon as she can manage it after the beginning of the book. She and the children visit the farm on the weekends and Del’s father sometimes comes to town.

In this abridged version of the story we are left with the impression that Del’s mother is proto-feminist who somehow stumbled into marriage and family life and couldn’t wait to get away from both. We do know that she’d really like Del to avoid that life, which she sees as a trap. Naturally, this is a trap Del almost falls into herself later on in the book.

We begin with life on the farm, which Del seems to enjoy, and some of the characters that go with that. Moving on, we learn of her mother’s obsession with education and how she becomes a seller of encyclopedias, with Del and her brother dragged along as sort of living display items for “how bright your child could be”. Del apparently has an excellent memory and can rattle of lists of presidents and prime ministers like nobody’s business.

The family is difficult. Del has aunts who think very little of her mother, and are nasty in that unconsciously self-righteous way that some people have down to an art. There is also a retarded cousin who “got too little oxygen” and provides a reason for the young Del to think about mortality.

Del’s mother has no use for religion so, naturally enough, Del is curious about it, and samples the variety of churches in Jubilee, settling pretty much on the Anglican version, at least until later in life when she ends up dating a Baptist.

Garnet French is her second boyfriend, and the first to whom she gives herself completely. She might have done so with the brilliant Jerry Storey, whose mother was so practical about birth control but, though she and Jerry were perfect nerd-mates in high school, he never inspires in her the same electrical response that she gets from Garnet. It’s interesting to speculate where they might have gone if one particular night had turned out just a bit different, but their relationship never goes beyond friendship after that.

Garnet, unfortunately, is rather like a dose of steroids for Del, amping up her physical responses while dulling her mind and will. His patriarchal approach to the relationship was bound to bring it to grief, and it does.

Perhaps Del was nudged in the direction of someone like Garnet by the inappropriate advances of Art Chamberlain, the local radio announcer, who was supposed to be the beau of her mother’s border, Fern, but whose attentions the younger Del finds irresistible until that very odd scene in the forest, just before he skips town. Maybe he knew he would have to after that.

Del has female friends as well, especially Naomi. The two are bosom buddies until Naomi leaves school early to take an office job, and falls into a “single girl on the make” sort of lifestyle that Del can’t relate to. In the end that friendship is lost.

Judy Mahbey’s reading of the book is very effective. According to the copyright information this was recorded for the CBC back in 1981. It’s nice to see the folks at BTC Audio Books bringing out some of the older performances so that they are not lost.