The archetypal Alice Munro protagonist is the smart restless girl from a poor small burg where nobody goes to college—or that girl grown up, or grown old. Her parents are dead, absent, or somehow indisposed. She marries up or marries down or doesn’t marry at all, and the resulting displacement leaves her vulnerable, conspicuous. She abandons her hometown for university on scholarship, or she stays and devours books, and either way her family and neighbors decide she is a snob. She has affairs, or imagines herself to. She is something of a fantasist, and those fantasies both soothe her and stir up trouble. She is always calling attention to herself, it seems, with what others define as her intellectual pretensions, her airy-fairy preening.
Much like unhappy families, every one of these women is different, and that is the wonder of Alice Munro. From a markedly finite number of essential components, Munro rather miraculously spins out countless permutations of desire and despair, attenuated hopes and cloudbursts of epiphany—she finds the infinite variations trembling within every insignificant, interchangeable rural dot on the Canadian map. Her 10th short-story collection, Runaway, is as lean and finely carved as a middle-distance athlete, as distilled and suggestive as its single-word flashpoint titles: “Chance,” “Passion,” “Tricks,” “Powers.” “A cold turbulence rose in Juliet,” Munro writes of one character, and the same could be said about any of these stories, with their glinting ice surfaces and disorderly emotions.