The English writer Tessa Hadley is rapidly becoming one of that country’s foremost fiction writers; her work in the past couple of years has expanded to include a wide American audience. At times, Hadley’s writing, which is completely magnificent, reminds me of the late, great Anita Brookner’s, who wrote perfect, flawless prose in an increasingly minimalist style. Hadley is psychologically very astute and her descriptions of both people and places are worthy of repeated readings.
But if her work has a regular flaw, it’s her often unsympathetic characters, which I found in her most recent novel, “The Past”, and I find again in her new book, ,”Late in the Day”. Four friends, two women and two men, have formed deep and lasting friendships early in their lives; the two women went to boarding school together and the men met at university. Lydia is languid, passive, beautiful, unaccomplished; Christine a scholar, prefers the background to the limelight; we readers are given a little information about their teenage boarding school years of bonding (which seem little more than a tendency towards rebellion). Zachary is exuberant, outgoing, rich, inclusive, generous, and Alexandr, withdrawn, arrogant, self-absorbed, scholarly, an intellectual snob, distant. Lydia, we’re informed, forms an early crush on Alexandr; she babysits for him and his first wife and she also introduces Christine to Zach. Both marry the wrong partners, or so it would seem; that’s the real core of the novel.
After opening a trendy art gallery in London with inherited money, Zach, the sharer, wants to include his friends in openings and the social life which comes from owning a gallery; we’re told that Christine has real artistic talent, that she’s dropped out of her Ph.D. program in literature to pursue her art with Zach’s encouragement. Lydia, it seems to me, does little more than pose as an odalisque. When Zach drops dead very suddenly, Lydia, who can’t cope with anything at all, moves herself into Alex and Christine’s place and is waited on admirably and tirelessly by Christine in particular; it’s clear Lydia has her eye on Alex from the second Zach dies. (Both couples do have fascinating and well delineated daughters, who are very close to one another, and they’re superb minor characters).
Christine locks her studio in her house once Lydia moves in; this will be a symbolic moment, and the reader knows that immediately: what will compel Christine to reopen her studio and go back to work on her art? I don’t think I’m being a spoiler to point out that Alex will leave Christine for Lydia, as those seeds are rather clearly (and somewhat obviously) planted all along; he’s intrigued by her passivity, her sexuality (and perhaps her newly acquired money). As Christine slowly begins to rebuild her life as a single woman, voila! she opens her studio and begins to make art again. A neat ending.
Hadley’s observations about these four as individuals, as couples, and as lovers across the aisle, if you will, are astute and sophisticated and well done. We’ve privy to a vacation the four took together to Venice, where Christine couples with Zach (after all, they’re former lovers and great pals: this brief affair lacks all credulity and is clearly a plot device); after the first opening at the gallery, there’s a possible four-way encounter that’s nipped in the bud.
I truly began to hope that Christine would rid herself of Alex altogether, and kept wondering how on earth she had ever found Lydia to be the alleged great friend we’re told about but see little evidence of. Lydia seems like a princess from the fifties; she has no goals in life, no aspirations, no substance, nothing. She is one of the most annoying characters in recent fiction I’ve read, and she and Alex rather deserve one another in the end. I’m not certain that’s the author’s intention, to create two such unlovable, solipsistic, self-absorbed characters, but Hadley’s good at describing the self-absorption of the English upper middle classes. Reading Hadley in an era where much new fiction comes from and delineates voices from the margins makes Hadley’s characters that much more vexing. Perhaps that is part of her point. The reader may simply conclude that these two women married the wrong men, but it’s hard to believe that the Lydia/Alex relationship will work very long, unless all he wants in a woman is a sex object with money to continue to feed his own arrogance and self-absorption.
But these very flawed characters make this book well worth reading as Hadley’s spotlight eye is brilliant and not entirely sympathetic to her own creations, and that’s a fascinating trope in a novel. Reading about people the reader may truly not care about is risky and tricky, but Hadley’s
writing itself is so beautiful and elegant that it alone is worth the journey with these mostly tiresome people in their early mid-life crisis.