Instead she stayed, a different person too, belonging where the thing had happened.
The last line of Bravado from William
Trevor's latest collection could stand in as a
fitting last line to any one of his stories. Dealing
in his trademark traffic of the human heart rent by
another or marked by a tragic event, Trevor shapes
characters that belong to their stories. They
live lives shaped entirely by an event or another
person, their fates slowly guided down a path they
will continue to walk. Resignation and helplessness
states common to all of these characters read as
distantly melancholic, the high emotional stakes
girded by Trevor's sure-footed, measured pacing. In
Bravado, careless teenagers are marked by the
terrible and unexpected outcome of a thoughtless,
macho show of brutality. In The Room, a wife
has a disinterested, almost obligatory affair, years
after her husband is accused, but not convicted, of
murdering his mistress.
In Old Flame (the gem of the collection), a 74-year-old wife obsesses over her husband's dutiful correspondence with his mistress of 39 years before. Old Flame begins with Zoë, the wife, steaming open a new letter from Audrey, the mistress she never met. What seems from the first page like any other story of an affair, turns into something quite different. As Zoë's 44 year marriage to Charles has become comfy and rote, so has Charles's protracted correspondence with Audrey become a kind of sweet courtesy. They meet every few years, platonically, at the same restaurant. They write, but not terribly often. Zoë and Charles never speak of the meetings, playing out a well-worn charade of shared ignorance, but she calmly imagines every part of it, playing the mind-movies in punishing detail: the scent of her hair, the flick of her wrist, the chit-chat, the shared endearments. This is not the furious, mad-out-of-her-mind jealousy of a newly betrayed young woman, but a jealousy worn down like a worry stone, rubbed smooth over the years until it becomes a kind of comfort, in a marriage in which comfort wins out over everything else. Why does she stay? Because she belongs to this story the story of their marriage much more than she belongs to her husband, or herself.
William Trevor is an old hand at this story-telling business this is his 38th book, after 13 collections of stories, 18 novels, five plays, and two books of nonfiction and it's obvious from the fine craftsmanship, the easy, effortless voice. Nevertheless, this collection also reveals that vital energy of a true artist behind the craft, poking at ideas, rolling them around, and making them new, which is what makes nearly every one of these stories well worth the price of the book alone.
A note for book clubs: Many book clubs are hesitant to discuss short story collections, and understandably so it can be difficult to know where to start with so many plotlines, characters and competing ideas; but choosing just two or three stories from a collection to discuss makes for great conversation and Cheating at Canasta would be a great place to start. The plots and characters raise complex, relevant, and immediately discussable issues, and Trevor's style is wonderfully readable. Short stories are also great for discussing an author's form and style, as their length reduces the scale a little, helps you see the shape and techniques more clearly and since they're short, you can easily read a story several times to get in even deeper. Try choosing just three stories to discuss from a collection and see what you think!
First Impressions: 16 BookBrowse members reviewed Cheating at Canasta, rating it 5 out of 5. Read their comments here.
This review was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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