In Tessa Hadley’s new novel, Late in the Day, published in hardback by Jonathan Cape, Alex loves Christine and Christine loves Alex, and Zachary loves Lydia and Lydia loves Zachary – or at least that is how things appear.
The dilemma: Alex and Lydia have feelings for each other, as do Christine and Zachary. These messy, interfamilial dynamics play out in public and in private, at home and abroad, making for a compelling look at the consequences of adultery, and of dredging up the past, for parents and their children.
The novel opens with news of Zachary’s death. Lydia telephones her friends one summer’s evening, at a moment when “the purple-brown darkness of the copper beech next door fumed against the turquoise sky”. Granted, it is subtly expressed, but something does not seem quite right. All three consider Zachary to have been the rock at the heart of their relationships and friendships; with him gone, we are left to conclude, things are bound to go off course.
We learn that Christine and Lydia first encountered Alex, then married, when he gave French classes at their university. With Lydia being someone “men usually noticed”, she makes it her goal to win him. She does, but not for long.
When he meets Christine and learns she is studying for a PhD on the poetry of Christina Rossetti, Alex picks her; Lydia has to settle for Zachary. Suffice to say Alex decides he wants Lydia again, and there their troubles begin.
Incidentally, Hadley makes an interesting structural device of the phone call. If the call in Chapter One can be said to set the plot in motion, then a second call, again between the two women, irrevocably alters the foundations of the characters’ relationships.
The foursome are upper- middle class, fond of art (Zachary owns a gallery at the time of his death, whilst Christine is, for a time, an artist), alcohol, cigarettes and classical music. Of the three survivors, none are particularly likeable. Lydia complains openly about being a “rotten mother”; we are left wondering why she has failed to address this. Alex, meanwhile, is proudly “relieved” that his daughter, Isobel, is “reserved and feminine”, so it is not hard to gauge his views on gender politics.
The claim made on the novel’s dust jacket, that it “explores the tangled webs at the centre of our most intimate relationships, to expose how beneath the seemingly dependable arrangements we make for our lives lie infinite alternate arrangements”, is borne out in Hadley’s crisp, considered prose.
We read, for instance, that, one evening, “Christine had left her cardigan on the arm of a chair and before [Alex] went upstairs again he picked it up, [and] dropped it across Lydia’s bare shoulders”. This gesture, performed with ease, is surely reflective of deeper questions about who belongs in which household, in which marriage.
Elsewhere, the narrator describes how “Alex never used his phone while he was driving – also, he despised that whole infantile obsession with needing to be in touch at every moment”. A reference to the instant messaging now ubiquitous in our lives, this description seems to hint too at Alex’s attitude to emotions, to how he feels about being ‘in touch’ with others.
The evident strains in and between the two marriages, strains which erupt after Zachary’s death, are explored cleverly by Hadley in relation to the novel’s children, who, though young, are nonetheless nearing the age at which their parents met and fell in love – or lust. As if the melding of the four parents and its impact on their children were not clear enough, Grace, the daughter of Lydia and Zachary, witnesses as a young child the four friends drunkenly fondling and fumbling one night.
Hardly surprising, then, that Grace seeks one-night stands – she is found in the opening chapter lying next to her “boyfriend from the night before” – and Alex’s daughter Isobel finds dating difficult, the two of them having been raised by parents in a state of amorous confusion.
The novel’s uplifting coda has much to contribute to the plot. As the novel opens, Christine “pause[s] outside the open door of her studio”, deciding that to return to art, “the fixed point by which she steered”, would be “sickening” and “fraudulent” given Zachary’s death. By the novel’s end, Christine has experienced a profound change of heart, one we can interpret as a sign of her liberation in grief from the constraints of domestic life. Just like Alex’s mother Margita, of whom previously “[h]er husband had taken up so much space in her attention: with his ambi- tion first, then with his disappointment … then his absence”, we sense that Christine will now put herself, and what she wants, first. Such a feminist ending – the studio is surely ‘a room of her own’, that place Virginia Woolf deemed critical to a woman’s chances at creative success – cannot be overlooked in light of the role marriage plays not only in structuring the characters’ lives but arguably the novel itself. Hadley does not finish her characters; to do so would be to fix them, and both they and what they have done cannot be fixed, only negotiated with the passing of time.
One of the novel’s particular strengths is its refusal to apportion blame to a single individual – everyone is guilty of behaving less than perfectly, of further complicating already compromised marital arrangements.
It might have been an idea to further flesh out the characters of Juliet, Alex’s first wife, and Max, Zachary’s brother, but the focus on the domestic dramas at play perhaps explains their relative lack of development.
Alex, Christine and Lydia have become unmoored with the passing of their mutual friend and, in the case of the two women, lover. As young women, Christine and Lydia are said to live “like children camping, play- ing at grown-up life”, and the transition from playful ‘kidulthood’ to responsible adulthood is one every character struggles with; the reader is left to ponder how the way they live now will pan out, if it will last, if they can ever recover their friendships, and if the way things were was better for everyone, despite the secrets and the lies that lay at the heart of their relationships.