The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Short story writer Alice Munro’s bittersweet nod to aging

Rachael Conlin Levy
What follows Pi Day

Reading Alice Munro, 2012.

In a poignant passage in the short story “Working for a Living,” the esteemed Canadian writer Alice Munro explores aging’s limitations and its unexpected liberation, which, like the work of Ursula K. Le Guin and playwright Young Jean Lee, ultimately finds life affirmation through suffering.

In a few paragraphs, Munro’s narrator retells a conversation her father had with coworkers that illustrates the solace we find in shared hardship and disappointment:

“One night somebody asked, when is the best time in a man’s life?

Some said, it’s when you are a kid and can fool around all the time and go down to the river in the summer and play hockey on the road in the winter and that’s all you think about, fooling around and having a good time.

Or when you’re a young fellow going out and haven’t got any responsibilities.

Or when you’re first married and you’re fond of your wife and a bit later, too, when the children are just little and running around and haven’t shown any bad characteristics yet.

My father spoke up and said, ‘Now, I think maybe now.’

They asked him why.

He said because you weren’t old yet, with one thing or another collapsing on you, but old enough that you could see that a lot of things you might have wanted out of life you would never get. It was hard to explain how you could be happy in such a situation, but sometimes he thought you were.”

Alice Munro. Photo by Derek Shapton.

Munro, like Lee, turns the everyday and unremarkable into moments of tenderness and beauty. Like Le Guin, she never lets her love of words get in the way of a good story. “Working for a Living,” which is part of Munro’s 2017 collection, “Family Furnishings: Selected short stories, 1995-2014,” is worth seeking out.

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