She might be, in the hands of another writer, a figure of fun. Someone to poke at, to mock. There are mockable bits, for sure. But Olivia, beneath all of that, is credible. Through and through: we believe she exists. (Depending on your life experience, you might even believe that you know/have known Olivia. Or a near-Olivia.)
But there is a darker side to her. Taking care not to delve too deeply into the story, here’s an early glimpse:
“Olivia now began to revise the instructions she had drawn up for the disposal of her own body after her death. She wishes to be cremated, which would cause one great and final inconvenience.”
How does Mavis Gallant do it? Even here, when Olivia is contemplating her final exit (the “in transit” theme erupts here, too), there is a note of playfulness. Not fun, exactly. No. Because almost immediately she outlines the specific sorts of disruption that she hopes to cause with this demand to be cremated. But she does seem to be playing a game, all the same.
The dialogue and the scenic detail in “Good Deed” are tightly drawn. Even if, at first, readers cannot get a sense of the goings-on between the characters (at least one of them decidedly off-stage), gradually the dynamics take root. And then readers can enjoy the interplay between Olivia’s overt and covert plans.
It all feels a little Muriel Spark-y, but where there would be an edge to it if Spark were to have written it, here the blade is wrapped in chintz. And it smells like violets and cat fur.