The short story ”Free Radicals,” by Alice Munro, appeared in the February 11/18, 2008 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The title works on two levels, as does the story as a whole, which achieves a layered effect. The situation can be seen through the lens of the past or the present, so the main character exists as the older woman, a widow with cancer, as well as the young and bookish “homewrecker” with all attendant drama. The intruder is seen by Nita in two different ways, her first impression and the later revised and more correct one; conversely, his first, more correct perception of her is turned on its head as events unfold. These shifting perspectives throughout the story have a dislocating effect as the reader can never get comfortable in a certain viewpoint – this is classic Munro.
“Free Radicals” draws you in in an understated way as you learn about Nita and start to piece together her situation. There are many stories like this that take a slice of life and show it to us and then end, often inexplicably. Munro easily surpasses this type of writing with a sudden twist that adds drama and suspense and finally a profound truth – being old and sick, knowing you’re going to die soon doesn’t lessen the fear of death or the unwillingness to die now. The end of the story leaves you with a tiny question about the truth of what happened between Nita and the first wife. The story ends with the words: “Never know.”