A Sudden Death Shakes Loose Four Intertwined Lives

LATE IN THE DAY
By Tessa Hadley
273 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.

Midway through Tessa Hadley’s brilliant and upsetting new novel, Isobel Klimec attempts to explain to her endlessly patient date who Zachary Samuels was. “He was my dad’s best friend, my best friend’s father, Mum’s best friend’s husband.” The date responds that “it sounds like one of those puzzles. … You know: ‘Who is my father’s brother’s mother’s husband’s grandson,’ that kind of thing.” In fact, it’s splendidly more complicated than that. In the hands of a lesser novelist, the intricate tangle of lives at the center of “Late in the Day” might feel like just such a self-satisfied riddle or, at best, like sly narrative machinations. Because this is Tessa Hadley, it instead feels earned and real and, even in its smallest nuances, important.

The longer version, with which Isobel does not belabor her date: Lydia Smith and Christine Drinkwater first met the married Alexandr Klimec (a sardonic Czech-born erstwhile poet) as their French instructor. Lydia, a hungry and capricious schemer, decided she must have him and insinuated herself into his life, babysitting for his son and setting up Christine with Alex’s friend Zachary. Before long, though, Alex had chosen Christine, and Zach had chosen Lydia. Marriages and babies ensued. Each woman would likely have picked the other man, and in each case it might have been a better match. But the men do the choosing here, as so often in life, and the result is a tenuous decades-long balance, a wobbly but serviceable four-legged table.

This is all past and prologue, though. By the start of the novel, these characters are in their 50s, the babies are grown (one, of course, is Isobel), and Zachary has just dropped dead of a heart attack.

Hadley is adept at fluid omniscience, at storytelling that skims through the years as easily as it weaves through various points of view, and as the days of funeral and mourning and aftermath progress we take great gulps of the past, of the 30 years between the formation of this quartet and its dissolution. We learn that these four were even more enmeshed than we’ve imagined, which explains the chaos the survivors have been thrown into by Zach’s death, the way “the shape of all their lives was shaken loose now.”

Zach was an easy and easy-to-love man, full of bustling life, a wealthy art dealer who, at a child’s birthday party, would rather be upstairs with the 4-year-olds than drinking with the adults. His absence destabilizes Lydia in ways beyond simple grief — in part because she’s a woman with very little to do, one who has refused paid work and charity work alike and cultivates idleness. “Now I don’t know how I’m going to fill my days!” she cries, an echo of her decades-earlier longing for Alex: “Unless Alex wants me I’m not real. … I’m just a shadow.” At the end of the first chapter, we see Lydia, who has temporarily moved in with Alex and Christine, climbing into bed between them. This is before we know her past with Alex, before we learn that one night years earlier, the four of them almost embarked — but didn’t quite — on a ménage à quatre. But the tension of all we don’t yet know still suffuses the scene. We sense, correctly, that Hadley has built us a fine pipe bomb.

So unquestioningly do the women, in their earlier years, enjoy “the golden good fortune of being chosen” and so subtly do all the characters undervalue Christine’s viable career as a visual artist even as they fetishize Alex’s neglected writing that one worries the narrative and the author are doing the same — until it becomes clear that these are the very complacencies Hadley is here to dismantle.

For it’s not just Zach who has held the four of them, and the two marriages, together; it’s the power structures they agreed to in their 20s, the vows they took when they were different people. (“Marriage,” Christine thinks, “simply meant that you hung on to each other through the succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to.”)

As their lives unravel, we wonder with Christine if the “questioning of impervious male knowledge had always come to women at a certain age, in their prime, as they grew out of the illusions of girlhood. Or was it a new thing coming about in history, because of cultural change?” The novel seems to suggest the former. By the end, the romantic fates of the couples’ two grown daughters are still being left to fate and chance, while Christine and Lydia begin for the first time to make their own choices. We see, as well, an older generation of women represented in Alex’s mother, who dispenses surprisingly liberated sexual advice to her granddaughter, years after her own disappointing marriage, and in Christine’s mother, who also offers late-in-life wisdom: “Aren’t men ridiculous?” she asks. It might not be history that frees us, Hadley seems to suggest, but personal history, a late coming-of-age.

I’m not the first to compare Tessa Hadley to Virginia Woolf, not even in these pages, and “Late in the Day” calls to mind, in particular, Woolf’s “The Waves” in its circling around a magnetic central character (for Woolf, it’s Percival, beloved childhood friend of six overlapping narrators) whose absence becomes the book’s main character. While we never hear from Woolf’s lost Percival, we hear only fleetingly from Zach and really don’t need more. He works best as an uncomplicated force, his silence (like Percival’s) mirroring his disappearance from the world of the story.

Here as in her previous six novels, it’s in part Hadley’s unflinching dissection of moments and states of consciousness that makes the Woolf comparisons irresistible, but it’s also her commitment to following digressions both mental and philosophical (a debate, for instance, on the ethics of tourism) rather than pushing away at plot. Hadley also employs — as in her novel “The Past,” which partakes of and questions the English pastoral tradition without quite subverting it — a gentle timelessness that allows us at moments to forget we’re reading about now. The occasional references to Fitbits or Tinder are jolting reminders that this author is more in conversation with Rachel Cusk than with Lytton Strachey.

On a trip to Venice, Alex laments to Zach the belatedness he feels as a writer. (Not that he’s actually writing anything.) Zach answers that perhaps women are free from this particular self-torture, “because the pen has been in the male hand and all that, for so long. Now that women have picked up the pen … they may feel all kinds of doubt but not that one. Because they’re not belated. As women they’re still near the beginning.” In Hadley, we see this borne out: There may be no historical newness to women’s disenchantment with male authority, but it feels new to write about it with this much raw honesty.

And here’s where Hadley departs most dramatically from Woolf, who could advocate for a solo room in essay form, but had little opportunity to give her characters realistic escapes from domestic life. Christine, by the novel’s end, has traveled through enchantment and disenchantment and arrived, at last, at simple (if only it were so simple!) independence.

It’s to her great credit that Hadley manages to be old-fashioned and modernist and brilliantly postmodern all at once. In their 30s, Zach and Lydia buy an old chapel in order to convert it into a gallery. “It seemed a miracle,” we’re told, “that after almost 300 years you could put the same key in the same lock and turn it, and the mechanism would respond to its cue.” And here is Hadley, doing the same: unlocking age-old mysteries in ways both revelatory and inevitable. We’ve seen this before, and we’ve never seen this before, and it’s spectacular.

Rebecca Makkai’s most recent novel is “The Great Believers.”

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