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Tessa Hadley Is a Master of Empathy: 'Married Love: And Other Stories'

Tessa Hadley's beautiful new stories force you to walk a few miles in some unusual shoes. When you do, you emerge from the experience feeling much better.

Married Love: And Other Stories

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 240 pages
Author: Tessa Hadley
Price: $14.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-11

I have read all of Tessa Hadley's books, and I especially love her novels. There's often a sense of unpredictability; things pan out, but they do not pan out in any way you might have imagined. There's also a sexiness; Hadley writes well about the body and the mystery of human desire.

Hadley's new book of stories, Married Love, is terrific. The first and titular story originally appeared in The New Yorker. It’s about a fierce, young, idealistic woman who decides to marry a man who is old enough to be her grandfather. She is transformed — and not in the way she would have imagined. She becomes a fussy, bossy mother, and feels rather unsatisfied with her husband. She does not enjoy the iconoclastic, rebellious marriage she had thought she would have.

I also admired a story called "The Godchildren". This one concerns three adults who converge on an estate when their godmother dies. The adults have to sift through their godmother’s things. At first, they are wary around one another. Then they begin to recall their shared history—the afternoons they spent on the estate together, when they were young. A layer of sexual complication is revealed. This story is especially good at observing how many lives we lead in just one life—how our 16-year-old selves can look foreign to us when we are adults. Memory is like excavation; we surprise ourselves with discoveries of our own internal “ruins”. We ask, can we really have been that way? The story is haunting.

Later, there's a memorable tale called "Post Production". Here, a woman mourns the sudden death of her genius husband—a filmmaker. Again, the past is not quite what a character once thought it was. Secrets emerge in the weeks after the filmmaker’s death. Perhaps he was not entirely loyal as a husband. Perhaps the mourning woman’s son had deep, shrouded feelings for his stepfather—feelings that can’t quite be put into words. Alliances shift; new romantic pairings surprise everyone in the family. Again, Hadley is skilled at showing how surprising the heart can be. A person can be startled by his own desires. Even when acting on the desires, he might not fully recognize what he is doing.

In each story, there's a sensual richness to Hadley’s prose. You had better enjoy descriptive passages if you pick up this book. You are asked to read slowly—to notice colors in the sky, to notice the quality of light outdoors on a given day or evening. If you like to fly through pages and pages of snappy dialogue and cliffhanger plotting, then this is not the book for you.

Still, I would hate for you to miss “She’s the One”, a portrait of a young woman who is mourning for her dead brother. The brother committed suicide. The young woman, Ally, has taken a job at a local fiction workshop, mainly to distract herself from her depressed family.

One member of the workshop, Hilda, is seemingly resolutely oblivious to most things around her. When she fills out a survey and is asked to record what she likes best about the workshop, she leaves the slot blank.

On the other hand, Hilda has quite a bit to say about what could be done to improve the workshop. She has a ringing, confident voice, which leads people to despise her. She confronts a clerk at the grocery store: a bit of olive oil has not been priced as advertised. When the clerk rather disdainfully explains a complication in the pricing, Hilda ignores the disdain and points out that the complication has not been clearly articulated in the store’s advertising.

Ally seems drawn to Hilda—to Hilda’s disregard for convention. The two form an unusual friendship, and it's utterly plausible. You feel as if you know these fictional characters; you become deeply invested in the outcome of their meetings, even without fully realizing the depth of your investment.

Very little is flashy in these stories. There's minimal humor, and Hadley is rarely aiming to address major sources of global crisis. The reward of reading the stories is feeling as if you were slipping into another person’s life. In a subtle way, Hadley seduces you—almost as if she were Colm Toibin. You put aside the book and, for a moment, you are able to see your own circumstances in a more detached objective way. This is the gift that good fiction gives. Hadley even articulates this experience in her description of a character’s reading hours. It’s all very well to laugh, or feel aroused, when reading mediocre fiction. But really good fiction lets you feel slightly more connected to the human community—lets you feel slightly less trapped in a prison of self-absorption, at least for a little while.

When I put Hadley's stories down, I felt more compassion for myself and others. I felt more patient, as if I had just matured by several degrees. I can think of few better feelings.


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