Reading Tessa Hadley

Married Love_Tessa HadleyReviewers describe the author Tessa Hadley as being “a meticulous stylist” (National Public Radio); “clear-sighted” (The Guardian); and “a close observer of her characters’ inner worlds” (New York Times Book Review). The consistency of these descriptions (“Hadley’s craft is expertly honed…” Irish Times) told me here is an author I need to experience. In other words, she’s too important to overlook.

Naturally, when I picked up her new collection of short stories, Married Love, I expected to be stunned with the power literature can deliver, but by the third story, I was underwhelmed. What was I missing? I didn’t experience her widely praised precise style and acute perception. I didn’t find myself surprised by exceptional storytelling. But I also didn’t doubt it existed — one can’t be the expert with all types of books and writing — yet I couldn’t believe I’d be so far out of the loop. I put the book down.

Weeks later, looking for a story to read in a limited time slot, I picked it up again and began reading “The Trojan Prince,” the fourth story. I figured I’d chug through it, but then it happened. I was reading as if on a different level, caught up in Hadley’s precise illustration of how we chose adventure over the ordinary, experiencing this common desire with a kind of “aha!” discovery as a boy becomes friends with his more wealthy cousin and another distant relative. And then, her language — it had begun to sing for me — “The two girls pet James and tease him as if he were a pretty, comical doll.”

Was it just this story? I paged back to the second story, “A Mouthful of Cut Glass,” and saw Hadley’s talent again now, as not before, the unique discernment. Here it pierces how we discount our roots when we leave home as university students, but then fall back into our childhood mentality when we return home. “The past’s important,” a character says in another story, “The Godchildren,” and we come to understand Hadley is pressing this point — no matter how much we disassociate from family relations, the impact they have on us remains.

Some switch flipped and turned me on to Hadley’s fine storytelling, and it stayed on ’til the end of the collection. I marveled at how she unravels the small burdens that stamp our lives  and how I could experience them with fresh understanding. Yes, the fiction of Tessa Hadley is not to be missed. Even so, not everyone will enjoy Married Love. The stories may be too uneventful in plot, too subtle in conclusion, and yet, therein is their power. If you want to see life in its pinpricks of light, I recommend the collection and suggest you start with “The Trojan Prince.”

Tessa Hadley is the author of four novels: Accidents in the Home, Everything Will Be All Right, The Master Bedroom and The London Train. Married Love is her second collection of short stories. Her previous collection is Sunstroke.

4 thoughts on “Reading Tessa Hadley

  1. I’m not familiar with her work, but I’m glad it grew on you. I heard the critic Christopher Ricks say that he “was out of sympathy with Derek Walcott” meaning he recognized his talent and achievement but that the poems just didn’t speak to him, which sounds like your initial response. I’ve started using that phrase, and I, too am out of sympathy with Walcott.


  2. Does this mean that I should have have another go at “Beautiful Ruins,” by Jess Walter? After reading your 12/10/2012 post, “Where’s the Agreement 2012 Best Books,” I raced to the library to check out this well-reviewed book. I am trying to get back into reading fiction again, after years of memoir and essay reading, and this seemed just the ticket. I struggled through a third of it, then took the book back. The prose was flat, the plot contrived, the characters unappealing. How in the world, I wondered with considerable disappointment, did this book make the best-seller list of anything? I noted in your post that you were also looking forward to reading “Beautiful Ruins.” I’d love to know what you thought. Now I’ll put Tess Hadley on my list. I’ll let you know how it goes. M.


    1. If you’re a longtime reader of nonfiction (memoir and essay) switching gears to fiction won’t be a smooth transition. Put another way, I’m not surprised “Beautiful Ruins” didn’t work for you. Your reading needs/expectations are honed to be satisfied by elements of another genre.

      I think you’re going to have to endure a hit-and-miss selection period, but I believe if you stick with it, you’ll land at a place where you know what fiction works for you and what doesn’t.

      I suggest you check out “The Patrick Melrose Novels” by Edward St. Aubyn. While fiction, they are based on his life. Start from the beginning, with “Never Mind.” Also, before you do that, Google Aubyn’s name and read articles about him. (They’ll likely come up in The Guardian.) His novels are bleak, but very good. Another book that might work for you is Michael Crummy’s “Galore,” set in Newfoundland and rich in folklore and location.(I would look at these suggestions before trying Tessa Hadley.)


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