How I found this book: I wanted a Canadian book to read during my trip to Canada. Initially I was thinking of reading a book by Robertson Davies because he is mentioned in the wonderful Moxy Fruvous song “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors”. It turns out, however, that all of his work comes in trilogies, which was a bit more than I wanted to take on. So I did some looking around and saw rave reviews for Alice Munro.
I read Too Much Happiness while riding the train through Southern Ontario which is the setting for many of the short stories in the book. I was initially excited when the first story I read mentioned that town I was currently traveling through. The story took rather a disturbing turn though, which somewhat dampened my enthusiasm. Still, it was fun to get to read in situ.
Canada (at least Southern Ontario) is about the least foreign foreign country that an American can visit. Store names are different, traffic barrels are orange and black instead of orange and white, and the public transportation is much much better (yay!), but otherwise the landscape looks about the same. (Obviously there are other less visible differences.) In preparing for my trip, I kept forgetting about certain aspects of foreign travel, like needing to exchange money and the fact that my cell phone wouldn’t work because it just didn’t feel like an international trip. Similarly, Too Much Happiness, was a fairly unexotic reading experience.
The title story of the book is a retelling of the life of a Russian woman mathematician, Sonia Kovalevsky, as she travels across Europe. That story is an outlier from the rest of the stories in the book which all take place in Canada and all involve the separation of people either through death or departure. Despite this theme, the main character in each of the stories seems to end up with a sense of satisfaction in their lives. In fact, the way in which the characters feel at peace with their imperfect lives even though they are still affected by their losses is remarkably consistent throughout the book- very different people with very different lives all seem to share the same sense of satisfaction.
This consistent sense of satisfaction led me back to the world happiness surveys to check where Canada falls relative to the U.S. Sure enough, Canadians do appear to consistently rank as happier than Americans, though the absolute value of the differences are small enough that they seem unlikely to be that meaningful. It turns out that there is a new 2012 happiness survey available. I am happy to report that the Moldovans have moved up in happiness rankings, now ranking as happier than at least five other European countries. (Bulgaria now ranks as the unhappiest European country.)
A small detail of Too Much Happiness that caught my attention: there are two stories in which deviled eggs are made and then left uneaten. (Which I find sad because I love deviled eggs!) After reading the second story, I thought that perhaps the deviled eggs were going to be recurring image in the book, but they never showed up again. If there were three instances of deviled eggs, I would have thought that it was an intentional theme. But with just two instances, I’m left feeling that it was accidental and that Alice Munro just forgot that she had already written about the uneaten deviled eggs in a previous story. It’s a silly thing, but it bothers me somehow. I want either more deviled eggs or fewer deviled eggs!