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by Tessa Hadley

Pub Date: May 13th, 2002
ISBN: 0-8050-7064-8
Publisher: Henry Holt

A sorrowful debut follows a family and some friends as they go stage by stage through dissatisfaction with their lives.

In a rainy modern-day British setting, a 29-year-old mother of three by the name of Clare is dreading the arrival of her childhood best friend Helly and Helly’s most recent boyfriend, David, for a visit at her cramped home—thus Hadley’s tale, with its ennui, depressed interior monologue, and passive-aggressive struggles for power, starts off like a well-executed if overly familiar short story. Fortunately, it soon takes a turn toward somewhat greater interest, as the author takes a step back from Clare’s problem and comes at the story from the point of view of Clare’s son, Toby, then back to Clare, then Clare’s mother, Marian, and so on. Even as she lures the reader into her other characters’ skins and worries, she keeps coming back to Clare and the story’s central, thorny issue: that Clare wants to have an affair with David. Her husband, Bram, is a scientist who studies the ecology of local mudflats, while David is a handsome Londoner who worked as a lighting technician for concerts and clubs. As much as Clare hates to admit it, she’s jealous of Helly—an aspiring actress and now well-paid model—and wants to taste at least a little of her glamorous life. Unfortunately for the story, though, this dilemma never quite makes itself dramatically believable or as a result compelling, a difficultly not helped by Hadley’s point-of-view-switching technique; after she’s taken the reader off to explore characters like the morose Toby, dealing with his slacker mother, or mousy Marian, taking care of her domineering academic father, being required to return to Clare’s interior life seems a chore. If only she were the most interesting.

Perfectly fine in execution but also a bit tiresome; with a different conception in the central story, Hadley’s consummate knowledge of her characters might have resulted in a more telling debut.