For readers who have met Steven first in “Let it Pass” and then, much younger, in “In a War”, it would have been doubly significant to come across this passage, in a story about the Steven-between-youth-and-age:

“In plain terms, this is not a recollection but the memory of one, riddled with mistakes of false time and with hindsight.”

But even without having met Steven in “Let It Pass”, without having discovered his younger self in “In a War”, this story is a delight, for its acuity and wit.

Readers do enjoy another experience of Lily: “For the sake of the concert the church had been turned into a public hall; in any case, what Lily chose to do was her business. Either God existed and was not offended by women and their hair or He did not; it came to the same thing.”

And it’s reinforced that this is a younger Lily, a woman Steven couldn’t even properly or accurately describe back then: “I could say she was like a Modigliani, but it’s too easy, and I am not sure I had heard of Modigliani then.”

It’s more important to observe Lily on her own, here, than it is to observe Lily with Steven (and maybe that’s also because his priorities have changed this memory over time):

“Lily turned to David, smiling. She loved being carried along by this crowd of players from old black-and-white movies, hearing the different languages mingling and overlapping.”

Because Lily isn’t smiling at Steven, she’s smiling at another man. But never mind, because even if you don’t know Lily or Steven or David, the other attendees are curious indeed.

“The Biesels attracted gossip and rumors, simply by being American: if twenty British residents made up a colony, two Americans were a mysterious invasion.” (Once again, this tension, which Gallant readers will recognize, between the continentals and the Americans.)

“We seem to belong to a generation before our own time. Lapwing and I come on as actors in a film. The opening shot of a lively morning street and a jaunty pastiche of circus tunes set the tone, and all the rest is expected to unfold to the same pulse, with the same nostalgia. In fact, there was nothing to unfold except men’s humiliation, which is bleached and toneless.” (There’s that thing Ondaatje talked about, how tightly a mood can turn, in a phrase or two.)

“What could he be called? Mr. Chadwick’s adopted nephew? His gifted young friend? And how to explain the shift from watering the agapanthus to spending the morning at the piano and the afternoon on the beach?” (You can feel the air-quotes around “friend” here, and readers witness yet another rapidly shifting but not-entirely-happy relationship. Whether same-sex or opposite sex, every couple’s dreams have an equal chance of falling short.)

Having read this story as the second of three, rather than the third of three as intended, I merely appreciated this passage, but as the final glimpse of Steven it would have been eminently satisfying: “Whatever thin faith they still had was in endless renewal—new luck, new love. Nothing worked out for them, but even now I can see what they were after.”

When I first began reading Mavis Gallant’s stories chronologically, back in early 2017, I observed that Janice Kulyk Keefer compared the experience as being like downing a fine vinegar. Even though I intuitively disagreed and felt dark chocolate to be a more suitable comparison, I expected to find that, once I had read more of the stories, I would adopt Keefer’s opinion. I admire Keefer (The Green Library and Rest Harrow are great favourites), so the odds of my opinion shifting towards hers seemed likely.

Now that I’ve read through all of Gallant’s stories for myself, I’m holding with my chocolate metaphor: an 85-90% chocolate, and slave-labour free (for Gallant, too, is concerned with matters of class and justice). There are occasional notes of bitterness, but they rest with the characters and not in the authorial voice, and the sophistication and satisfaction linger on the tongue.