Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Book Review: "Late in the Day" by Tessa Hadley

The two couples were the closest of friends—Alex and Christine, and Zach and Lydia. Before all four met each other, Lydia and Christine were friends from school, as were Alex and Zach. When they all were living in England, their families spent a great deal of time together, and even their daughters grew up together. While they each shared some similarities, each was very different from one another.

One night, Alex and Christine plan for a quiet evening, when the idyll is broken by a phone call. Lydia is calling from the hospital to say that Zach died suddenly. The two are utterly shocked by Lydia's news, and rush quickly to tend to her, to tell Lydia and Zach's daughter, Grace, who is in school in Glasgow, and to handle the details that are necessary when such a tragedy occurs.

How do you help a friend who is grieving the death of her husband when you, too, are grieving the death of a cherished friend? What words can convey support while not focusing too heavily on your own loss? Alex and Christine feel unmoored, as if a part of them has died, as jovial, big-hearted, creative Zach always seemed to bring rationality and heart into their relationships with one another. Lydia is unsure of what to do—she is unable to tend to Zach's affairs, or even process the thought of being alone in their house without him.

Yet when Lydia moves in temporarily with Alex and Christine, being all together doesn't help assuage their grief. What it does instead is bring to the surface the difficulties in Alex and Christine's relationship, and unearth hidden feelings among the three of them which were buried a long time ago. Without Zach, the cracks become apparent in all of their relationships, but for a time they keep their peace out of respect for his death.

"Anyway, she didn't think any longer about the truth in that same way: as a core underneath a series of obfuscations and disguises. In the long run, weren't the disguises just as interesting, weren't they real too? She and Alex were so unlike, really: associated through some accident in their youth—the accident of his choosing her, because of what he thought she was. Since that beginning, they had both changed their skins so often. Marriage simply meant that you hung on to each other through the succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to."

Shifting back and forth between the early days of their relationships and the present, Late in the Day is an examination of the strange ways grief manifests itself, how it reignites old passions, opens old wounds, and creates friction in places there never was any before. It's a look at how we think of close friends as part of our family, but yet there are times we realize friends are no substitute for our family.

Tessa Hadley is a very talented writer, and she has a keen eye for dialogue and character development. From the very outset I predicted how the story would unfold, and I'll admit I was a little disappointed, because it seemed almost too predictable. I really never understood what the characters saw in each other except the pull of gravity keeping them together, and I felt that Lydia, Christine, and Alex were fairly unlikable, full of recriminations yet unwilling to say what's on their mind.

I didn't enjoy this book as much as I had hoped I would. I found the pacing to be very slow (the flashbacks, while edifying as to how the characters got to where we are now, dragged on for far too long) and things seemed a bit disjointed at times. I also wasn't sure what message Hadley was sending with the way she tied things up.

I read Hadley's The Past a number of years ago and found it very enjoyable, and I also enjoyed her collection of short stories, Bad Dreams and Other Stories. While Late in the Day wasn't a winner for me, I'll definitely keep reading Hadley's work, because I do love the way she writes.

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