Tessa Hadley: “Valentine” from TNY, 4/8/13

TNY Art by Beata Boucht

TNY Art by Beata Boucht

It’s June, and summer is thick everywhere, a sleepy, viscous, sensuous emanation; optic blasts of air, opaque with pollen from the overblown suburban gardens, are ripe with smells from bins and dog mess. We are mad with summer, chafing and irritable with sex. We are fifteen…
Something has to happen.
Into our heat that morning comes Valentine.

What is it with Tessa Hadley and TNY? Does she have pictures of Deborah Treisman with goats or something?

I know, that isn’t really fair. After all, this is only the sixth Hadley piece they’ve published in slightly less than two years. They’ve published Alice Munro six times as well in roughly the same period, and George Saunders five times. I wasn’t aware Hadley was in that league, but I’m not big on leagues anyway, so I’m always happy to see someone crash a league.

The offerings of those other two authors, however, were actual short stories, instead of novel excerpts as three of Hadley’s pieces have turned out to be. In her Page-Turner interview Hadley says she didn’t know when she wrote “Honor” whether it would be a story or part of a novel; it wasn’t until later that Stella’s life story would become a novel-in-stories. That may have been the case when she wrote it, but at the time it was published, it was called the first chapter of her planned novel. The novel is due out in the UK next month. Maybe this is the most highly-anticipated blockbuster of the decade, and I’m just too ignorant to realize it. But I’m really, really tired of Stella.

My main issue: I find Stella as a short-story character to be perhaps not as interesting as Stella the novel-in-stories character could grow to be. The movie might be great; the clips aren’t working for me.

In the first installment, “Honor,” I saw a not-that-unusual situation developed with skill and great attention to detail. I called it “very good background” to a story that hadn’t started yet, which, as the first story in a novel-of-stories, is exactly what it turns out to be. “The Clever Girl,” which is the title of the novel-in-stories, introduced a stepfather Nor; in this present story, set shortly thereafter, the stepfather is George, leaving me to wonder: is this a different stepfather, two stepfathers in such a short period of time? Or was it just Hadley’s decision to change the name? It matters.

If I were feeling more generous – and I should be; the writing here is lush and evocative – I’d admit it’s an interesting idea, to follow a writer’s development of a character through a novel-in-stories. The structure of the novel interests me as well: stories set at different ages, demonstrating different phases in Stella’s life. The understanding of her family situation at age eight. Her developing intelligence as a young teen. And now, at fifteen, her blossoming sexuality, her desire for independence.

But my attention is all thrusting forward, onward, out of there. I’ve burned my boats I can’t go back – or, rather, I do go back, dutifully, every evening after school, and do my homework at the same table in the same stale olive-green dining room, and still get the best marks in the class for everything, nearly everything. But it’s provisional, while I wait for my real life to begin. I feel like an overgrown giant in that house…

That’s effective; we’ve all been there. So why am I not more taken with Stella?

I should be (yes, I know, I keep saying that…the crew at The Mookse and the Gripes loved this story, and I always get nervous when I’m on the opposite side of the fence from them). I like the “memoir voice,” that term Marko Fong used that conveys perfectly what first person past does. It’s a tricky thing, too: we need to see the future projected, but not too much of it. Hadley uses it very effectively early in this particular story to let us know that the teenage romance with Valentine will come to an end, but he will show up later in Stella’s life. It’s more than just foreshadowing; it’s a conspiratorial whisper to the reader: “Pay attention to this; you’ll want to recall it later on.” I like writer-reader conspiracies. The problem with an excerpt is, we don’t get to see the payoff.

The prose itself here is wonderful, perfectly conveying the first sexual flush of a fifteen-year-old girl. It’s a distinct change in tone from the earlier stories, and it cooks. I wanted to be fifteen again, but this kind of fifteen, not the fifteen I actually was.

I wanted Val because he was different – as I was different. What I felt at my first sight of him that summer morning was more than ordinary love: something like recognition.

One of my problems with the story is that she tips her hand. I knew the nature of the problem from the moment Valentine appeared, saw it there amidst all the red herrings. Again, if I were feeling more generous, I’d see it as confirmation of a hunch, instead of a failed grand reveal. I don’t insist on surprise; I admitted that everything I expected to happen in The Fault of our Stars actually happened, so what’s the difference? Perhaps it was the humor; or maybe Hazel just fit my personal tastes better. For whatever reason, by the end of this story, I felt a bit cheated. I felt – to assume a 15-year-old persona – “Well, duh!”

As for my mother, cleverness could never beat her. In my mind, I was convinced that her life – housework and childcare – was limited and conventional. But, in my body, I was susceptible to her inpatient brisk delivery, her capable hands fixing and straightening – sometimes straightening me, brusquely, even when I had half grown away from her…

That said, it’s still my favorite of the Stella stories. The teenage urge to break away from the safety of home and parents clashing with the desire for that very safety, sure. And my heart broke for Stella as she subsumed her own tastes and appreciations to conform to Valentine’s opinions, which, as a teenager in love, she saw as vastly superior to her own. I so wanted to slap her out of it, to tell her, “You’re the winner in this relationship; it’s he who should be imitating you.” But this learning process, how to be ourselves in the company of another, is by necessity a solo act, and Stella has to go through it on her own. In fact, I was so engaged in this aspect of the story, the consequences of this first romance seemed almost an afterthought.

But I’m sure we’ll see another story about that soon. Thanks to the goats.

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