Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Review: Cheating at Canasta

Cheating at Canasta, by William Trevor
8.5/10, a superbly written collection of relationship stories

William Trevor joins the elite ranks of repeat authors reviewed in this space thanks to Rikoshi, who gave me this collection for Christmas. I liked the collection quite a bit, but most of the stories didn’t have the power of his novel. Odd, because he’s mostly known as a superb short story writer.

Indeed, there are a few stories from the collection that shine. It was just that I ended many of the stories thinking, “Wow, I enjoyed meeting those characters and being in Ireland, but…that was it?” The themes of the book center around relationships, whether between friends (“Folie a Deux”), families (“Children”), couples (“Cheating at Canasta,” “The Room”), or an odd love triangle (“Old Flame,” my favorite story in the collection). The relationships range from passive to passionate, the characters always very alive and real even if they are despondent or lethargic.

Character is a strength of Trevor’s work, probably why I like him so much. His focus on relationships is interesting because he picks out many non-traditional ones. There’s a woman blackmailing a man for affection (“The Dressmaker’s Child”), a former child wheedling money from a priest who cared for him (“Men of Ireland”), and a sister who depends so much on her weaker brother that she controls his life (“Faith”). When I praise his writing, I mean mostly the way he’s able to express character traits without stating them, how he shows you a character naturally and builds the setting around them in the same way, and the occasional turn of phrase that just makes you stop and say, “That’s great.”

…seen through drizzle on a pane, the sea is a pattern of undulations, greyish green, scuffed with white. The sky that meets it on the far horizon is too dull to contemplate.

I appreciated the short stories he wrote, but in many cases I wish he’d spent more time developing the characters. It seemed I’d only gotten to know them before the story was over. Still, if you want some terrific writing, Trevor is always a good choice, and this collection got finished in the middle of a fairly busy time for me specifically because it was short stories and could be read episodically. And, honestly, it’d be worth getting just for the four of five of the dozen that really do grip you, even if the writing weren’t so good.

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