Clever Girl

by Tessa Hadley

(Harper, $25.99, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Tessa Hadley, a much-admired British novelist and short story writer, is the author of such novels as “Accidents in the Home” and “The Master Bedroom” and the collections “Sunstroke” and “Married Love.” Her books often gain the New York Times Notable Book designation, and Hadley also is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her parents had artistic leanings, and she is the niece of playwright Peter Nichols, famed for his “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” and “Passion Play.”

What is this book about?

A young girl, Stella, recognizes early on that she has considerable intellectual cleverness and envisions a bright future, possibly with her brilliant, quirky boyfriend, Valentine. But life, in this realistic “coming of middle age” story set largely in Bristol, England, takes a different turn. At 16, Stella, who is the daughter of a single mother,  faces single-motherhood herself. It’s a challenge indeed, and there are more that follow as the years go by.

The Independent interviewed Hadley and said: “It’s hard not to draw parallels between Stella and her creator. Both read avidly as teenagers, both entertained literary aspirations which were derailed by circumstance: namely, marriage, pregnancy and family.”

“Hadley acknowledges the congruencies between fact and fiction only to swat them away. “It is not very autobiographical except that, deliberately, Stella is born in the same city and the same year as me. But she absolutely doesn’t have my life. She is much braver than I am, much more audacious.”

Why you’ll like it:               

Hadley is one of those gifted writers who can reveal the extraordinariness of what seems to be on the surface just an ordinary life. Stella, whose story she tells from her teen years in the 1960s to today, is British, but American readers – particularly women – will relate to the choices she makes and the consequences that ensue.  Here is what Hadley told The Independent about what her novel explores:

“The things that aren’t under your control are the most interesting,” Hadley says. “Stella says it herself. It isn’t what goes on in your inward life that is most important. It is what you do with what befalls you. We can’t pre-empt this. In the end, when you look back, those substantial accidents are the test, much more than what you have schemed.”

What others are saying:

Says Booklist: “Growing up in Bristol with a single mother, Stella first realizes she’s clever when she solves a physics problem with sudden insight. Her cleverness seems confirmed when she and brilliant Valentine become inseparable in a life of the mind. But she’s not clever enough to avoid becoming pregnant at 16, after having sex just twice with Val, who’s left for America. When Stella’s in the greatest need, her own hard work and the kindness of others help sustain her through motherhood, communal living, tragedy, affair, and marriage to the age of 50, when she understands that “the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than the invisible turmoil of the inner life. . . . The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you.” Hadley (Married Love, 2012) displays the keen insight and masterful portrayal of the domestic life for which she has become known. But this story of how narrator Stella lives out what befalls her is more likely to be admired for Hadley’s sheer skill than embraced.

In The New York Times Book Revie, author Meg Wolitzer  wrote: “…Hadley is an immaculate stylist…Clever Girl isn’t plot-driven and isn’t a character study and isn’t preoccupied with language, but its elements work in patient harmony. It is what could be called a “sensibility” novel—a story that doesn’t overreach, about a character who feels real, told in prose that isn’t ornate yet is startlingly exact. The effect is a fine and well-chosen pileup of experiences that gather meaning and power. “

Publishers Weekly says in a starred review: “Hadley’s latest is told from the point of view of Stella, a lower-middle-class British girl born in the 1950s, whose experiences coming of age mirror the broader cultural development of her times. The child of divorced parents, Stella is clever in school and seems destined to go on to a university. But after being abandoned by a boyfriend and discovering she is pregnant (her son, Luke, eventually goes on to be a teacher), Stella’s life takes a series of left turns. While working as a waitress, she falls in with a group of art students, and eventually goes to live in their commune, where she gets pregnant again by a new boyfriend who’s tragically killed before the baby is born. After a dispiriting stint as a married businessman’s mistress, Stella returns to school and resumes the trajectory of her waylaid life. The simplicity of its story is one of this novel’s great strengths: the uncluttered plot allows for Stella’s pains, humiliations, and instances of self-discovery to be confidently inhabited and rendered with emotional precision. Looking back over her life, Stella can be wistful about people and places (“Sometimes I’m nostalgic for that old intricate decay, as if it was a vanished subtler style”), but tellingly, she is often at a loss to explain or precisely remember her motivations, “as if a switch flicked between two versions of myself, I suddenly wasn’t all right.” In the end, this carefully wrought novel transcends mere character study, offering up Stella’s story as a portrait of how accidents and happenstance can cohere into a life. “

Says the Wall Street Journal:  “Masterful, understated….Clever Girl, like the fiction of V.S. Pritchett or Alice McDermott, is devoted to capturing personality through small actions and expressions, to sparking characters into a vivid flame with a few exact descriptions and to distilling domestic settings into precious, even exalted significance.”

Hadley’s book unfolds Stella’s life straightforwardly, making it all the more believable.

When is it available?

“Clever Girl” is on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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