“There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women.”
When protagonist Del Jordan’s mother tells her this, it’s more about the changing world around them in terms of women’s rights and their place in the world. An educated, pragmatic, dynamic city woman from a small town, Mrs. Jordan welcomes this type of change in the world for Del, while simultaneously living the life of women far before her and still hoping the same for her daughter (marriage, children, etc.). But the above quote from which Lives of Girls and Women takes its title isn’t just about that shifting of the times, it’s a coming-of-age tale, one of new awakenings for Del, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
More like a compilation of short stories than a straight-up novel—think of it as a series of chronological anecdotes or vignettes, snippets of Del’s girl to woman journey—it takes a while to get into the flow of Lives. There is, however, a confidence in author Alice Munro’s writing and storytelling that the reader may not exactly expect going into this collection of stories. It’s actually a bit disorienting at first, as the book gets right into the action of its universe, as though it were one that is pre-established. But once you get into the ebbs and flows of Lives, there’s truly only one way to describe it: breathtaking.
Published in 1971, Lives follows Del Jordan’s life in rural Ontario, Canada in the early to mid 1900s, growing up, discovering and devouring all of life’s experiences that she possibly can, for better or worse. The story is broken into eight short stories, each chronicling Del’s life as she transitions from girl to woman, from child to adult.
Del’s thirst for knowledge doesn’t turn her off from wanting to fall in love with a man or having sexual urges; Lives makes it clear that it is possible to have one and the other. It’s not a matter of this or that, even if society wants to tell you that it is.
Throughout the course of these anecdotes, Del has to reconcile her inquisitive, progressive mind with her expected behavior as a member of the “fairer” sex. She knows what is “right”—what is “proper”—but at the same time, she just wants to figure these things out for herself. To her, life is a mystery, and simply listening to the words of the people around her (whether men or women) isn’t enough. She is her mother’s daughter through and through, but like many children, she doesn’t want to acknowledge that—no matter how true, and even great, that may be.
The world of Alice Munro’s Lives (and the character Del’s life) is one of exploration, fascination, and wonder. There’s an earnest nature to it, without a hint of naivety, even when Del is a child. Del’s thirst for knowledge doesn’t turn her off from wanting to fall in love with a man or having sexual urges; Lives makes it clear that it is possible to have one and the other. It’s not a matter of this or that, even if society wants to tell you that it is. At the risk of sounding clichéd, Lives preaches to the concept of marching to your own beat. Del has moments in her life where she questions that idea, but those aren’t the result of falling victim to public opinion; they’re more the result of teenage peer pressure, and even then, that rarely sticks for Del.
For the reader, even without a connection to the literal world of the story, Alice Munro’s words create a sense of being that anyone (especially a woman, but not exclusively) can relate to when looking back at their own youth or childhood. Munro’s writing is, in a word, lyrical, and reading her words can be rather like reading a seemingly unending song.
They respected men’s work beyond anything; they also laughed at it. This was strange; they could believe absolutely in its importance and at the same time convey their judgment that it was, from one point of view, frivolous, nonessential. And they would never, never meddle with it; between men’s work and women’s work was the dearest line drawn, and any stepping over this line, any suggestion of stepping over it, they would meet with such light, amazed, regretfully superior, laughter.
Lives doesn’t attempt to make a battle between the sexes, but it does make clear that there is in fact a split between the lives of boys/men and the lives of girls/women. The split is mostly a matter of appearance, as the women in Del’s life (whether friends or family or family of friends) are shown to be all about keeping up appearances—appearances that would all vary depending on the woman (and, to a lesser degree in the story, man). As somewhat of an outsider, Del is able to get a clear view of all of these appearances, judging them accordingly, maybe even trying them on herself for short-term. As Del herself says: “It often seemed then that nobody else knew what really went on, or what a person was, but me.”
As far as coming-of-age stories go, Lives of Girls and Women is one that deserves to be a part of more conversations. Munro is able to capture a feeling of growing and maturing over the course of this collection of intertwined short stories. If nothing else, it reminds the reader to question everything, and that’s always an important sentiment to remember.