William Trevor has been called the greatest living short-story writer in the language, and the evidence of After Rain suggests that such a view is not misplaced. The twelve stories in this collection are without exception marvelous, illuminating as they do the cracks and fissures in the emotional textures of a wide range of human relationships, in a variety of circumstances and settings. The stories reveal, often through a comment by the narrator coming with sudden force at the very end of the story, what has been endured, sacrificed, lost, compromised, or accepted in situations in which people interact with each other over long periods of time. Because of the absolute believability of all the characters and their actions, there is a sense of completeness and truth about these revelations, although many of them are subtle and unexpected.
Many of the stories focus on married couples. In Trevor’s stories, couples tend not to get divorced. Instead they “work things out,” often in an unconscious way, that leaves surface appearances intact but deeply shifts the subterranean landscape of their lives. In “A Day,” for example, a woman lives with the knowledge, thanks to an intercepted letter seven years ago, that her husband of twenty years is having an affair, yet she has never confronted him with it. She spends part of her day imagining what the other woman is like, but she does this without animosity. She apparently has accepted that there has been an unacknowledged quid pro quo between herself and her husband: The marriage has been childless, and although he wished to adopt a child, she refused. An affair, then, is his rightful due, his payment for his acceptance without rancor of her childlessness.
The wife, however, has paid a price, of which a slow slide into closet alcoholism is probably the least. Her self-deceit is far more serious. She spends much of her day composing different scenarios that might happen in the future. Her favorite appears to be the belief that Elspeth, the lover, will become pregnant. The wife turns this to advantage, imagining that she and her husband will take the child and somehow contrive a happy ending from the long years of deception. The irony of her situation is that she remains fond of her husband, who is gentle and kind with her, and from the outside the marriage would look like a “good” one, but in truth it is nothing other than a long lie. Because of the knowledge she possesses, there can never be an honest exchange between them.
In “A Friendship,” a wife who is bored with her successful but pompous lawyer husband allows herself to have an affair, encouraged by her best friend. Through the use of a few telling details, Trevor makes sure that the reader’s sympathies are entirely with the wife. The husband is so preoccupied he does not go to say good-night to his two boys until they are already asleep (and if they are not, they pretend to be), and he is known among the wives and other women of their social circle as “Bad News,” referring to the misfortune of being placed next to him at the dinner table.
The irony, however, is that the wife does love him, and when the affair, which has already ended, is discovered, she is filled with remorse. After a terrible quarrel—for the dialogue of which Trevor possesses perfect pitch—her husband forgives her. Nevertheless, he exacts a price for his forgiveness: She must never again see her friend who colluded in the deception. This price seems vindictive, until both the wife and the friend realize that “the forgiving of a wife was as much as there could be.” A wronged husband could not forgive a treacherous friend as well. The wife accepts this, the friend knows, because of her feelings of guilt. She owes her husband a sacrifice, even though the loss of her best friend from childhood is a great one. Thus the trade is made for the “successful” marriage to continue: guilt is assuaged, honor satisfied, a friendship wrecked.
When Trevor does describe happy marriages, as in “Widows” and “Timothy’s Birthday,” he is merciless still, because even such ideal unions involve a price. In “Widows,” a loved and loving husband dies. The wife’s period of mourning is clouded by the appearance of a tradesman of dubious character who tells her that his bill for work done at their house had not been paid. Catherine distinctly remembers that her husband had withdrawn the exact amount from the bank to pay him. The tradesman insists he has no record of payment, and she cannot find a receipt. The mystery is never explained (a technique Trevor also uses in “Gilbert’s Mother”), but the impression is left that the tradesman may be telling the truth, with the implication that there may be something about the dead man that the wife did not know.
Yet that is not the main point of the story, which is about the relationship between Catherine and her widowed sister, Alicia. Alicia had no happy memories of her marriage to a feckless philanderer. When Catherine’s husband died, Alicia hoped that she and Catherine could return to the relationship they had had before they married, but it is...
(The entire section is 2108 words.)