The Love of a Good Woman
is a work of fiction published in 1998 by Alice Munro. Centered on the small provincial town of Jutland, somewhere in Canada, it traces a web of related secrets, exploring how they affect the townspeople when they reverberate through its multitude of perspectives, each of them incomplete and unreliable, yet dependent on the others.
Three teenage boys decide to swim in the town’s turbulent river. Noticing a submerged object, they investigate further, finding a car that contains the body of Mr. D.M. Willens, the town’s optometrist. Rather than immediately go to the police, they go home to dinner with their families; later, they reconvene and decide to tell the town constable. The constable is too hard of hearing to understand what they are trying to say. They also pass Mr. Willens’s house, where his wife is gardening, seemingly oblivious to her husband’s death. Still too timid to tell the police for fear of being deemed suspects, they return home. One of the boys can’t wait any longer and tells his mother, who calls the police. The police extract Mr. Willens’s body from the river.
The story then shifts forward in time to an indefinite period after Mr. Willens’s death. Mrs. Quinn, a young woman dying of rare early-onset kidney failure, lives with a home nurse called Enid. Mrs. Quinn is cranky and morose, and Enid is middle aged with a suppressed libido that comes out in sexual dreams; others are prejudiced against her for being unmarried. There is also Mrs. Quinn’s absent husband, Rupert, who is presently living with his sister in a different town. Enid cares for their two daughters mostly by herself. Mrs. Quinn’s husband visits infrequently, making her feel worthless and despised; Rupert does little to challenge her perception of his attitude towards her. After a survey of their, mostly, stagnant lives, the section ends as Mrs. Quinn conveys to Enid that the optometrist, Mr. Willens, once had an affair with her on the bed that will soon be her deathbed.
The following section shifts back in time, serving to link the discovery of the body with the story of Mrs. Quinn and Enid. Mrs. Quinn tells the story of his death to Enid. While Mr. Willens is at Mrs. Quinn’s home to examine her eyes, she is wracked by anxiety, as he has a reputation for starting affairs with his clients. Sexually unsatisfied, she gives in when he makes an advance. Rupert, Mrs. Quinn’s husband, walks in on Mr. Willens with his hand on her thigh and Mrs. Quinn’s skirt raised up. He knocks Mr. Willens down and smashes his head against the floor, killing him. Mrs. Quinn creates a plan to throw him into the river along with his car, executing the plan with her husband.
In the concluding section, Mrs. Quinn has died of kidney failure. Enid has developed feelings for Rupert but strongly believes he has to tell the police about his crime, though at the same time, she is unsure whether he committed it. She agonizes over the conflict of loving a potential murderer, deciding that if he is brought to trial, she will attend each day, and wait out his prison sentence while staying faithful to him. In the end, she designs a way to find out if he was the murderer. She asks him to take her in a rowboat to the middle of the river, telling him that she can’t swim. She puts her life at risk intentionally, deciding to tell him that she knows about the murder story in the middle of the river so that he can decide whether to kill her. The novel ends suddenly before Rupert takes action.The Love of a Good Woman
is fundamentally about the unreliability of any single narrative, or even a given group of narratives, in constructing an accurate account of events that take place in a reality that no one ever truly understands. It insists on not developing certain plot holes in order to convey the sense of frustration that accompanies our elliptical and subjective reality.