There's a lot to like about this Tessa Hadley story in the latest New Yorker (the one that landed in my mailbox with the sickening thud that indicated another utterly horrifying piece of Sy Hersh reportage)--she is a highly skillful composer of sentences, and arranger of sentences into paragraphs. The story is about a young woman of 19 who marries a man 45 years older than she (and who is also already married); and about (more about, really) her large family and its reaction to the match. The wedding goes off, the couple has three kids, and the girl is ultimately disappointed and embittered, but only a little bit.
A few choice lines. About the protagonist's father: "He was...stocky, densely and neatly made, with a wrinkled, ugly, interesting head." About her angry mother, seen by her brother: "His mother's high heels scraped fiercely in the empty street as she crossed to the car." Later, the poor girl "never recovered her neat boxy little figure, or that dreamily submissive phase of her personality." Overall, the story is sophisticated, compact, and nicely fitted together, and it is more or less a pleasure to read.
So why is my jaw so tight as I think about it? It isn't Hadley the prose stylist I object to--and that is usually my first objection to just about any writer--but rather Hadley the observer of humanity. Taken as collections of individual details, these characters are lively and well drawn, but taken together they reflect a certain class smugness, a lack of perspective, a lack of humility. They are very, very clever--they bicker, but they do so in well-prepared exchanges, as though they're reading from a beautifully crafted script. Their foibles are offset by interesting and precious careers--violinist, teacher of "special-needs kids," composer, English teacher, student. Such people exist, of course, and many of them are nice to be around. It isn't who they are that bothers me--it's the way I fear that Hadley feels about who they are. They are never made to confront anything truly upsetting about themselves or each other. They are comfortable. They belong.
I am not eager to give the impression that I fundamentally dislike stories about privileged people. But the ones here don't really think about their station in life at all--it is as though privilege, to them, is the default state of human existence. Congratulations to anyone for whom it is, in fact, the default--but I don't really need to read a story about people so cozy in their own skin. Hadley's mind is interesting, but, to judge from this piece, there is a disconcerting smoothness to her worldview. I would love to see her lay down the paintbrush and pick up the knife.