“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1808, a quote often falsely attributed to Shakespeare. It’s a line that comes to mind frequently when reading about the tangle of marriages, lovers, close friends, family and children in which so many of Tessa Hadley’s characters ensnare themselves. The two couples in her latest, dependably absorbing domestic novel, Late in the Day, are bound together in such a gnarly knot that it takes a whole book to patiently pick it apart.
In both her long and equally wonderful short fiction, Hadley has focused on the long tail of relationships – especially the illicit affairs, child-rearing, financial woes, and career pressures which tax tightly intertwined lives. Her concerns recall Schopenhauer’s parable of the porcupine: seeking warmth, these prickly creatures draw together, only to be needled apart. The trick is to find the optimal distance between intimacy and individuality which requires careful adjustments in order to both define ourselves in relation to others and preserve and nurture a discrete identity.
My two favorite Hadley novels, The London Train (2011) and The Past (2016), featured fairly straightforward, almost boilerplate plots enriched by sophisticated, innovative structures. In The London Train, two seemingly separate stories about extramarital romance hinge at a crucial meeting point – on the eponymous train between Cardiff, Wales and London’s Paddington station. Cleverly, the two halves are mirror images of each other. The Past channels a sort of English country house drama in which grown siblings come together one last time under the leaky roof of their old family homestead before selling it. A long flashback sandwiched in the middle sheds light on the various characters’ psychological baggage, grievances, secrets and affinities. Amidst all the memories, time becomes fungible.
Hadley brings her increasingly fine-tuned emotional acuity to Late in the Day, in which past and present again intermix as snugly as her characters. The close foursome at its heart– two heterosexual couples recombine in multiple configurations over the course of some three decades, as if their lives were an extended square dance whose do-si-dos and other moves are determined by a caller. The book explores the vagaries that influence even our biggest choices, including who we marry. But it also quietly celebrates the sometimes unexpected road to fulfillment.
The novel opens with the news of the sudden death of a gallery owner named Zachary. His shocked wife, Lydia, phones from the hospital to report his fatal heart attack to their best friends, Christine and Alex. Lydia – once described by her late, loving husband as voluptuous, materialistic, and “awfully lazy” — repeatedly bemoans her helplessness without him. Their friends invite her to stay with them for as long as she wants, although they’re well aware that she lives an indolent existence free of the most basic responsibilities – earning a living, cleaning up after herself, doing laundry, even nurturing hercollege-aged daughter — “like an aristocrat in another era.”
Zachary’s death is the catalyst that drives the novel, a disruption that upsets the group’s delicate equilibrium. It leads Christine, a serious artist, to re-think their history, and particularly her relationship with her husband, Alex, a difficult, moody Czech refugee and poet-turned-schoolteacher. Decades earlier, we learn, Alex had chosen tall, sharp Christine over undisciplined but doting Lydia, who had a mad crush on him. Christine reflects that since their accidental beginning, she and Alex “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.”
Unraveling the tangled web of this foursome’s relationships requires a lot of jumping around in time and much – sometimes too much – exposition to fill in background. Zach, we learn, was the most energetic and likeable of this tightknit group. He was the necessary fourth leg supporting their communal table; without him, what’s left is too wobbly to be of much use.
The relationship between the surviving trio devolves at times into soapy melodrama, but Hadley is after some weightier issues – including how marriage and children affect women, in particular, and the underappreciated pleasures of solitude and silence. There are hard-earned lessons, such as the realization that “you could not have everything: the whole wisdom of life amounted to that.
One of the most illuminating flashbacks involves a pivotal trip to Italy – which evokes such mainstays of classic British literature as E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, complete with a day trip to Torcello. On their last day, Christine and Zach visit the Tiepolo ceiling in Venice’s Scuola dei Carmini without the others. “I love the past,” Christine declares tellingly to her fellow art lover and dear friend, who was long ago — briefly, before she married Alex — her boyfriend. “Sometimes these days I almost think I can do without the present. The past is enough for me, it’s enough for my life. Does that sound insane? I could only say it to you,” she adds, coming as close to confessing her marital unhappiness as she dares.
Zach, of course, reassures her — and one gets the feeling that both he and Christine speak at least somewhat for their creator. After all, for Hadley, what’s past is not just prologue – as Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest — but ever-present. And living exclusively in the moment may be the watchword of our time – but in practice it is far less interesting than the layered, nuanced lives Hadley devises for her characters.