Where to start with...

Where to start reading Alice Munro’s books

With a wide array of collections spanning decades, this list provides an introduction to the genre-defining short stories of Alice Munro.

One of the great luminaries of Canadian literature and one of the world’s finest short story writers, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature for revolutionising what a short story could be.

Each of her stories encompasses the depth and range of a novel, presenting a nuanced portrayal of everyday moments experienced by ordinary people. She was devoted to writing about rural Canada and women, setting most of her stories in conservative small towns in Huron County and subversively revealing the complexities around sex, death, ageing and relationships that shaped their lives.

Much of Munro's work also illustrates how the cultural shifts of the 1960s unfolded within families, with daughters breaking free from generational patterns to pursue higher education or professional careers for the first time and living with the full weight of those choices. To read Munro is to sit within the epiphany-like moments that shape a life.

Use this list to discover which of her books you should pick up first.

Sometimes, the best place to start with an author’s work is the beginning. This collection of short stories shows that Munro's talent for depicting characters enmeshed in emotional minefields was evident from the very start of her career, earning her the prestigious Governor General’s Award as a debut author.

In one of the stand-out stories of this collection, The Peace of Utrecht, two estranged sisters grapple with their guilt and regrets over the choices they made when faced with their mother’s terminal illness and the weight of her memory.

Further showcasing Munro's mastery of the short story genre, Friend of My Youth will change the way you think about stories and storytelling. In this collection, the author's gift for layering the past and present shines brightest, exposing the common habit of constructing narratives about the past using only the scraps of knowledge we possess, bringing us close – but never all the way – to the truth.

If you love novels, then Munro's second book might be the perfect entry point into her work. The interconnected stories of Lives of Girls and Women are snapshots of a young woman realising her potential for a creative, worthwhile life beyond the confines of her small town, provided she is bold enough to seize it for herself. Also exploring darker themes such as death and nascent sexuality in a patriarchal world, the narrator in this collection bravely pursues her calling to become a writer – making this a beautiful and thought-provoking read for anyone at a crossroads in their life.

Much like Lives of Girls and Women, this collection of stories is also interlinked and explores essential questions of identity. Munro weaves together a journey for the reader that simmers with the inherent tensions of being young, creative and ambitious while growing up in a small town that values conformity, showcasing her extraordinary ability to create a space for us as the reader to examine these feelings from the outside. Who Do You Think You Are? examines the complexities of grappling with self-doubt and the feeling of never measuring up, even in the face of success.

In this collection, Munro steps away from themes of conformity within society, and instead delves into the complexities of familial relationships. From an eldest child who tries to strike out on her own, only to be drawn back into the fold, to the connection between a mother and daughter that holds room for both hurt and compassion, The Progress of Love masterfully depicts the full range of conflicting emotions within a family, and with it the depth and unknowability of even the closest people in our lives.

Runaway (2004)

Perhaps one of her finest collections, Runaway invites us into unfolding emotional situations fraught with live wires. In the book's titular story, we meet a couple and their neighbour, held together by a lie and resulting blackmail. The thriller-like intrigue continues throughout the whole book. We’re left questioning characters’ intentions as they lie to each other and and disappear from each other's lives, haunted by mistakes, misdeeds, and heavy memories. This is a brilliant place to start if you love mysteries that will have you turning each scenario over in your mind, as you attempt to settle on the truth.

Munro’s twelfth book stands out as her most autobiographical. Using her own family history as the scaffolding, she writes between the lines of the past to take us into her ancestors’ lives: first in their native Scotland, and then on the transatlantic crossing to Canada, where they became homesteaders in Southwestern Ontario. She paints successive portraits of the long line of women and writers who came before her, claiming their creative force as her own and blending her art with the stories that have been passed down to her, to create something as ‘truthful as our notion of the past can be’.

If you're not afraid to dive into darker themes, Too Much Happiness is the book for you. From the first story, about a young woman's difficult emotional connection to her husband after he murdered their three children, the tone is set for a whole collection of stories where no encounter is entirely as it first seems. It rewards the reader with surprising twists, complex and harrowing scenarios, and a sense of understanding for how we rationalise traumatic events in order to survive and move on.

Dear Life (2012)

The stories of Dear Life are each masterpieces that stay with you long after the final page, making it the perfect pick to round off your Munro reading list. Each story contains a twist of fate, a chance encounter, or a road not taken that forever changes a life. In quiet moments, characters make sudden decisions that are not fully explained, guided by something in their hearts that carries them away from the expected.

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