The Book We're Talking About: 'Clever Girl' By Tessa Hadley

Clever Girl
by Tessa Hadley
Harper, $25.99
Publishes March 4, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think
Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl, which was first released in the UK in 2013, is not a long novel, but it covers a lot of ground, following narrator Stella from early childhood to the settled comfort of middle age. To achieve this sweeping arc in relatively few pages, Hadley allows Stella to guide us through her life at the rambling pace of an amateur memoirist, moving directly through the large and small events that have defined her.

When the novel begins, in the 1950s, a very young Stella is living alone with a single mother; her father, who she’s told died when she was a baby, abandoned the family. Despite this unpromising beginning, Stella quickly discovers she’s “clever,” a seeming ticket to higher education and a brighter future. But her goals of attending university are dashed when a doomed love affair with a fellow student leaves her pregnant and alone, and her long-unsteady relationship with her mother and stepfather breaks down. She quickly finds herself a single teenage mother who’s unwelcome in her own childhood home.

Stella gives up plans of further schooling as she struggles to adjust to parenthood. In exchange for room and board for herself and baby Luke, she hires herself out as a live-in maid. She works in a cafe, falls in with a group of art students, starts a relationship with one of them, and lives with the group in a commune. She soon finds herself pregnant again, but the senseless death of her boyfriend leaves her a single parent yet again. An affair with an older man reawakens her passions, but he remains devoted to his wife and the affair eventually dwindles. Her life often seems to happen in a series of fits and false starts, held together by the constant thrum of daily duty.

Stella’s story is poised on the knife’s edge between remarkable and mundane. It’s punctuated by events of grotesque violence and tragic disappointment, especially in her youth, but defined by years of simply getting by. In such an understated, slice-of-life story, the style and depth of human understanding focus the novel. And while Hadley’s deft touch with prose and penchant for quiet insight offer subtle pleasures throughout—a vividly described image, a precisely delineated revelation of human nature—the novel often feels frustratingly superficial and bland.

At times Stella’s monotonous narration seems to flatten out the story, describing a heart-wrenching loss with more haste than intensity and spending pages superficially recounting a dull series of events—her new employer, her daily routine. “That’s how disaster comes,” muses Stella at one point, “without any fanfare.” The truth of this observation is devastating, and at its best, the book lays bare how easily horror and banality blend together. Life, it suggests, doesn’t work like a scripted tragedy. Life ebbs along steadily, and even after utter calamity, the washing up must keep getting done.

And yet some essential truth seems to be missed in this quiet realism and insistence on understatement. Disaster does tend to resonate throughout our lives with a depth not quite plumbed in Hadley’s book. The lushly observant writing and flashes of insight don’t seem fully satisfying; some essential part of Stella remains hidden from us. By the end of the novel, Stella feels like a friend, but she never feels like an intimate friend. Despite the close-up character study that is Clever Girl, she’s keeping us at arm’s length.

What other reviewers think
The Guardian: “This novel is the life story of an ordinary, middle-aged woman—Stella. Only that she is not ordinary because Tessa Hadley is writing her into existence and is behind her like a following wind.”

The Independent: “As a first-person narrative, it's sometimes hard to remember this is not a memoir. There's a curious lack of suspense.”

Vanity Fair: “As she lives out what befalls her in all its glory and devastation, with all its gains and losses, what Stella retains is her perspicacity, revealed in countless small gestures throughout this rich, absorbing novel.”

Who wrote it?
Prior to Clever Girl, Tessa Hadley published four novels and two books of short stories. Three of her books were New York Times Notable Books, and her novel Accidents in the Home was on the longlist for the Guardian First Book Award. Three chapters of Clever Girl previously appeared in The New Yorker as short stories.

Who will read it?
Those who enjoy understated, realistic literary fiction or domestic fiction. Also, those who enjoy literary memoir.

Opening lines:
“My mother and I lived alone. My father was supposed to be dead, and I only found out years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old.”

Notable passage:
“Andy was receptive, like a deep vessel into which life was poured. If this terrible particular thing hadn’t been poured into her, she would have been happier—it goes without saying—but less of a person. She was filled out by her fate. I actually think this is quite rare, this capacity to become the whole shape of the accidents that happen to you.”

Rating, out of ten: