First published in 1971, Lives of Girls and Women is difficult to categorise, blurring the line between a cycle of short stories and a bildungsroman. Alice Munro writes the life of Del Jordan, a girl growing up in a small town in Ontario, Canada. The focus is upon the transition from childhood to adulthood, both on the events that shape Del as well as the atmosphere of growing up, which is intertwined with descriptions of southern Ontario.
Through the precision and sheer cleverness of her prose, Munro has managed to construct a world in which little happens, yet keeps the reader entirely drawn in. This is not a book to read if you are looking for action, nor a book I would recommend reading quickly. The environment of Jubilee, Ontario, reminds me of Romantic literature, with a clarity in the writing which gives Del’s teenage opinions an added realism. Del is an outsider to the community, with her life teeming with autobiographical details, yet a distinct voice when compared to Munro’s other work.
This book was, at one point, removed from Canada’s schools, due to Munro’s frank attitude toward sexual awakening. However, it is in no way overtly sexual, dealing with Del’s sexuality sensitively yet not patronisingly. To read Lives of Girls and Women in the current climate of over-sexualised coming-of-age portrayals, in television shows such as Riverdale, is refreshing and, frankly, humanising. The protagonist’s forays into her first romantic and sexual relationships are nuanced, balanced carefully with the other relationships in her life: with her family, friends, nature, and her self-perception.
I would particularly recommend Lives of Girls and Women to fans of Margaret Atwood and Jhumpa Lahiri, or those interested in the fields of feminism and eco-criticism. As a creative writing student, I find Munro’s technical skill fascinating and inspiring, and I would recommend a close reading of her work for anyone looking to improve their writing skill in any area. There is an undertone of hope for the future throughout the book and a focus upon human connection and survival which, despite being written in 1971, translates well into modern day discussions of the environment, women’s rights, and isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.
Munro would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, with her work evolving throughout her life, probing deeper into the lives of housewives, of married and then divorced women, of women reminiscing on their adolescence. Whilst I highly recommend her writing in general, I have never found, in either another of her books or the work of another author, the same replication of how it feels to be almost grown-up. I imagine that, in future, I will reread her other collections and find my feelings translated fluently into fiction as I move through my life. Alice Munro is an author to read for life.