William Trevor's short stories begin quietly, without fanfare, his characters simply doing what they always do or commenting on some ordinary feature of the day. Their lives then unfurl on the page, in bits of conversation and snatches of memory until we know them as much as one can know the mystery of another human being.
In the title story, two London lovers whose long-term extramarital affair has settled into daily routine realize that time has changed the relationship. The woman has grown not to care about what others think; for the man, how others view his beloved has come to mean everything, and he would rather end the affair than see her sullied in their eyes. In "Big Bucks," a young couple in rural Ireland dream together of a better life in America. He scrapes together money to go with plans to come back and marry in a few months. But the reality of Irish migration to the States is different in 2002 than it was in 1870; plans change, feelings shift and what comes to pass is not what anyone planned.
Coping with that gap between dreams and reality is the central journey in Trevor's stories. While his language is bathed with gentility, he doesn't shy away from the dark side of human existence, instead using darkness to surround the light and enrich its brightness. But Trevor's world is not black and white; bad things happen to good people, and good people can do bad things. Life is lived in shades of gray. One character muses that "the truth, even when it glorifies the human spirit, is hard to peddle if there is something terrible to tell as well. Dark nourishes light's triumphant blaze, but who should want to know?"
More than one reviewer has called Trevor the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language, and his stories are indeed masterful, unfolding tales of grace and complexity. Such a superlative is ironic, given the very ordinariness of the people he writes about. His characters range from a wealthy English matron whose life was determined by a single tragic childhood event to a 14-year-old maid hearing the classical music of her employers for the first time. Transcending class, geography and circumstance, the people of Trevor's stories share a common humanity, a gentleness and a sense of quiet redemption amid life's vagaries.