Reading “Dear Life” by Alice Munro seems to take a bit more than I would expect from a 400-something pages book. I thinks that’s because the stories are so well-crafted that you can’t possibly rush through them. I found myself reading just one or two per day. This is my first Munro book and I love it so far. She is truly a gifted storyteller and makes cramming a lifetime into a 30-pages story look so easy.
While reading this book, I tried to remember when was the last time I read short stories. I like the genre very much, but I haven’t read anything worth mentioning in a while, except for “Pulse” by Julian Barnes earlier this year. I couldn’t help but compare the two. In terms of enjoyment, there’s no doubt I like Munro’s stories better. This has something to do with the way she makes you bond with the characters by penning them in a sketchy but convincing manner. The story is different with Barnes, who is perhaps more inclined to discuss people in a social setting than individually.
The opening story, “East Wind”, was actually the one that I liked most. An Eastern European waitress with a dark past starts a relationship with a middle-age real estate agent. Nothing remarkable here at first sight, but Barnes masterfully sets the story in a bleak English autumn, and you can almost feel the gloom of the seaside cafe where the two of them meet. The four “At Phil and Joanna’s” stories scattered through the book are theatrical reproductions of dinner parties where two middle-age couples discuss contemporary topics, ranging from politics to art. I didn’t particularly enjoy them, but I liked the resemblance with Platon’s Symposium. Barnes alludes to this himself, when one of the characters mentions they talk about anything but love.
I found the title story, “Pulse”, a bit uncharacteristic for Barnes. It is filled with so much more emotion you would expect after reading the previous stories. The moment when a man rolls some herbs in his finger to make it possible for his dying wife to smell them is quite memorable. I had only read a couple of Barnes’ novels prior to picking up “Pulse” and I must admit it somehow altered a bit my idea of him being just a cerebral and witty writer.