This story is the apotheosis of the “People at a Party” story that we’ve encountered several times already, in pieces like “The Penthouse Apartment,” “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake,” and “The Mark-2 Wife.” “Angels at the Ritz” concerns Polly and Gavin Dillard, a young middle-aged married couple in the London outer suburbs, attending a party thrown by their old friends, Malcolm and Sue Ryder. The Ryders, as has become the custom among this class and age of early-’70s suburbanite, intend to end the party with a game of wife-swapping: car keys thrown on the carpet and scarves tied around the wives’ eyes. We follow the Dillards to the party, where they are duly hit on by their old friends. Polly avoids the advances of the rather disgusting Malcolm, but Gavin ultimately succumbs to Sue’s wiles, telling Polly he has been rude to Sue and needs to return to the party after bringing Polly home. Polly accepts this—a kind of passive, Trevorian acceptance is her strength and flaw—and lies in bed thinking about how she has fallen.
Fallenness is the subject of this story—”Angels at the Ritz” refers to a song played at the party that reminds all of them of an evening they spent at the Ritz for Polly’s 22nd birthday. In the interim, they have all been corrupted: Malcolm and Gavin by age and philandering; Sue by bored, suburban malaise; Polly, in the end, by acceptance of Gavin’s discrete and respectful faithlessness (as opposed to Malcolm’s reckless cheating) as an unavoidable aspect of the life she’s chosen. Again and again, we are returned to the evening in question, going for martinis they couldn’t afford, their futures ahead of them.
The portrait William Trevor paints of suburban adult life here is extraordinarily bleak—not just among the four principals, but all of the sodden and seedy bit players as well—and one strives unsuccessfully to imagine a version of married adult life in this place that is not curdled by gin and sexual boredom. Trevor’s outer suburbs are similar, in many ways, to John Cheever’s Shady Lawn, but Cheever was crucially a fantasist and fabulist—his suburbs are a place of drunken misery and infidelity, yes, but also a locus of myth and extraordinary, numinous vision. Cheever, in his way, loved the suburbs and the rhythms and rituals of married life they imply and abet. Cheever’s heroes and heroines are also fallen, but they sense a sumptuary wholesomeness—a truly good life—that is attainable in little ecstatic moments if not in toto. As I discuss in this essay, many of Cheever’s most famous stories—for instance “The Country Husband” or “The Chimera”—describe a dramatic arc in which placid suburban happiness is disturbed by erotic energy, but returned to tenuous serenity at the end.
Trevor’s bleak suburbs are in keeping with a larger bleak vision of married life in The Collected. It is difficult to think of a happy marriage in Trevor’s oeuvre. Happiness, to the extent it exists, is usually only attainable by eccentric individualism, and only attained by dignified monastic celibates like Mrs. Whitehead in “Nice Day at School,” or else fantasist loners like John Joe Dempsey. Anyone who wades into the murk of adult matrimony and its attendant material concerns gets what’s coming to them: infidelity, brutality, misery—disillusionment, at the very least. Disillusionment, as represented in this story by the memory of that perfect young evening evoked by “Angels at the Ritz,” is posited as something unavoidable, a natural milestone of marriage. As the story puts it early on:
In the outer suburbs [wife-swapping] was most popular when the early struggles of marriage were over, when there were signs of marital wilting that gin and tonic did not cure.
Up next: “The Death of Peggy Meehan”