Synopsis: When Grant takes his wife, Fiona, to an assisted living home, he learns that family members are not allowed to visit Meadowlake residents for their first thirty days at the facility. After thirty days, Grant discovers upon his first visit that not only does Fiona appear to not remember who he is, but she’s developed a relationship with another Meadowlake resident, a man named Aubrey.The problem with seeing a movie based on a book (or, in this case, a short story) before you read the source material is that sometimes your feelings for the film can alter your take once you finally get around to reading. I love Sarah Polley’s film Away From Her. The tone of the film is one of gentleness and affection; the way Polley portrays the story, it’s about a man whose love for his wife convinces him to make an unexpected sacrifice. So when I sat down to read Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the story on which the movie is based, I came equipped to impose the movie’s tone onto the story.
But Munro’s story is simultaneously more subtle and more complicated than the movie version. The affection is there, but so is the intimation that when Fiona “forgets” her husband, she may be doing so on purpose. Both the film and the story let the reader in on Grant’s multiple affairs, and both suggest that Fiona might be using her progressing dementia to somehow get even with her husband for his past transgressions. The difference between the film and the movie, though, lies in Grant’s final action: In both, he makes a plea to Aubrey’s wife to return her husband to Meadowlake so that Fiona—distressed by the loss of her beau—can recover from her apparent depression. The decision in the film and story is the same, but the motivation behind the action is significantly different. As Polley would have it, Grant does this seemingly out of his love for Fiona. But an examination of how Munro uses a third character to give Grant someone to model himself after, convinces me that in the story, at least, Grant doesn’t so much make a decision as resign himself to making a sort of penance.
Munro’s version of Grant is not a man of action. He takes what is presented to him: Fiona proposes to him—not the other, more traditional, way around—and he “took her up on it.” When his affairs start, they are cast in terms that make it seem as they are affairs that happen to Grant, rather than something he actively takes part in. The women students bring to him “the great surprising bloom of their mature female compliance,” and the only action Grant has to take is to select one woman out of the many who, evidently, present themselves to him. When his first affair ends, it is not because he breaks it off, but because the woman’s husband is transferred. His second affair is “a whirlwind” that “hit[s]” him—as implacable and unavoidable as nature. At the conclusion of his second affair, Grant thinks, “Just in time.” Munro writes, “The feminists and perhaps the sad silly girl herself and his cowardly so-called friends had pushed him out just in time. Out of a life that was in fact getting to be more trouble than it was worth. And that might eventually have cost him Fiona.”
The situation with Aubrey is one that also threatens to cost him Fiona: When Aubrey goes back home, Fiona is distraught. Grant does take action, at this point, by going to see Aubrey’s wife, Marian, to present her with the idea of allowing Aubrey and Fiona to visit. Marian doesn’t bite. She is a practical person—“a mercenary type of a person,” she calls herself. Grant observes of her:
She must have had some hopes when she picked Aubrey. His good looks, his salesman’s job, his white-collar expectations. She must have believed that she would end up better off than she was now. And so it often happened with those practical people. In spite of their calculations, their survival instincts, they might not get as far as they had quite reasonably expected. No doubt it seemed unfair.
Marian’s practicality did not necessarily get her what she expected, but Grant can see how she has bargained and negotiated her way through life. So when Marian calls his answering machine to invite him to singles’ night at the Legion, Grant understands that he is being presented with a chance to be as practical as Marian. Like the other women who simply fell into his lap, Marian is presenting herself to Grant—but she is not as enticing as the “young girls with long hair and sandalled feet” who “all but declar[ed] themselves ready for sex.” Marian has a wrinkled face and wide buttocks, and Grant finds her sensibility off-putting at first. He must talk himself into the opportunity:
Anything was possible. Was that true—was anything possible? For instance, if he wanted to, would he be able to break her down, get her to the point where she might listen to him about taking Aubrey back to Fiona? And not just for visits but for the rest of Aubrey’s life. […] The walnut-stain tan—he believed now that it was a tan—of her face and neck would most likely continue into her cleavage, which would be deep, crêpey-skinned, odorous and hot. He had that to think of as he dialled the number that he had already written down. That and the practical sensuality of her cat’s tongue.
Thus, Grant finds himself thrust into yet another affair. The difference, though, is that this affair is not a lark, a whirlwind that simply sweeps him away; it is a calculated move, one intended not to bring him pleasure, but meant to restore the one thing that has made his wife’s life at Meadowlark happier. Munro’s is an altogether more cynical take on the “sacrifice” Grant makes: Now his final affair becomes something of a personal hell, in which the sinner is punished with the very sin in which he once indulged.
For more: You can read the whole story, as it appeared in The New Yorker here. For more on the difference between movie and story, check out this article. And for an insightful appreciation of Alice Munro, read this piece by another favorite author of mine, Margaret Atwood.
Up Next: “Gryphon” by Charles Baxter