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Lives of Girls and Women is nearly always recommended as an ideal introduction to Alice Munro. Everyone who preaches this doctrine knows that it is doing Munro a bit of a disservice: Lives of Girls and Women is her only novel, and it is certainly not her best work. Nonetheless, it is a seductive book, one that consistently turns dabblers into Munro devotees.
Munro follows the late childhood and adolescence of Del Jordan, an intelligent girl growing up in Jubilee, Ontario (one of the most palpable fictional towns in all of Canadian fiction) in the 1940s. Del is ordinary enough--she doesn't fit into her community, but this is the lot of any gifted child in a small, working-class town. Her father raises silver foxes for a living, her mother (a tentative feminist living in a decidedly traditionalist community) drives the back roads trying to sell encyclopedias to farmers. Del's passage through the usual travails of growing up (family deaths, lost friends, the awkward beginnings of sexuality) is rendered with extraordinary skill. It is easy to find compassionate writers, but the Munro of Lives of Girls and Women is a much more valuable find: a writer blessed with empathy, humour, and even cruelty. She can lovingly eviscerate her characters when it is necessary, yet never slips into the lazy shorthand of caricature. Some of her short story collections are better made (Open Secrets and Who Do You Think You Are?, for example), but the scope of Lives of Girls and Women makes it one of Munro's most memorable books. --Jack Illingworth
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