The Heart Of Her Matter

Alice Munro's latest collection of stories, "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," isn't as good as her best work, but then virtually nothing is. For 30-odd years, Munro's been writing about the hungry hearts and thwarted lives of rural Canadian women with an X-ray vision approaching Chekhov's. She's the least showy of writers. Often, as in her masterful 1994 collection "Open Secrets," you don't realize how gripping and transporting her stories are until you finish one: re-entering the real world is like trying to step out of a moving car.

"Hateship, etc."--the title grows on you, but only a little--is a moving, if uneven, collection about the pain people carry around. About their neediness and their denial. About how they expect you to save their lives when you're too busy drowning. In the fine title story, a lonely maid writes to a man she hardly knows. Two teenage girls intercept the letters and write such steamy replies ("My darlingest Johanna...") that the maid shows up at the man's door, expecting to be wed. In "Post and Beam," an unhappily married woman named Lorna is repulsed when her needy cousin Polly visits: "Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears... but her outrageous demand, to be folded in, rocked, comforted. Lorna would sooner have hit her."

The best stories here resonate so deeply that the rest feel drab. Too many characters seem unknowable not only to each other but to us, and the author's familiar habit of jumping back and forth through time feels forced. If you've never read Munro, "Hateship" is not the place to start. But if you have, you already know that there's no stopping.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, MarriageAlice Munro
(Knopf)