Too Much Happiness
is a 2009 collection of short stories by Canadian Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro. Its titular story is based on the life of pioneering Russian novelist and mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya, who excelled in these male-dominated fields due to a combination of feminist values, curiosity, and strong will. The collection as a whole explores the injustices women experience in work, family life, and other parts of society, and their triumphs despite these injustices. The book was widely acclaimed for its subtle, yet powerful, multifaceted, and believable depictions of female figures.
The collection’s first story, “Wenlock’s Edge,” is narrated by an unnamed young woman living in London. She describes her relationship with her roommate, Nina, a smart but deeply troubled student who verges on sociopathic in her efforts to derive joy from manipulating those around her. Nina tricks the narrator into going on a date with Mr. Purvis, an older gentleman whom Nina herself is sleeping with. During the dinner date, Mr. Purvis pressures the narrator to undress at the table and later to read poetry to him.
“Some Women,” also told by an unnamed woman, involves a masseuse named Roxanne who seduces Bruce and his mother, Mrs. Crozier. The narrator is supposed to be taking care of Bruce, who is terminally ill, during her summer job. She is so disturbed by Mrs. Crozier’s enabling tendencies and Roxanne’s sexual manipulation that she can only watch as these women exert full control over Bruce’s life. At the end, she reflects that adults are capable of unfathomable cruelty. In “Child’s Play,” Munro comments on the similarly cruel capabilities of children. It follows two children, Charlene and Marlene, who meet at a summer camp. Marlene, the narrator, recalls a summer when a girl named Verna tragically drowned at camp. Her apparent sympathy for Verna takes a dark turn at the end when she casually reveals that she drowned her. This story involves a trademark plot feature of Munro’s: the suspension of information until a critical, ironic
twist that is deeply revealing about a given character.
The titular story “Too Much Happiness” concludes the work. In it, Sophia Kovalevski, a budding mathematician and writer, faces a setback after her husband Vladimir, a paleontologist, kills himself. Sophia relocates to Stockholm and courts one of Vladimir’s distant relatives, the professor Maxsim Kovalevsky. She finds it impossible to extricate her grief over Vladimir’s death from her future relationships but, nevertheless, forges ahead in her career.
In each of the stories in Too Much Happiness
, typical conceptions of femininity, morality, and memory are challenged or undermined. Whether the characters under consideration are ultimately good or evil, they illuminate qualities that even the most seemingly ordinary people also possess.