Friday, February 1, 2008

Leaving life behind and returning to the scene of one's childhood (Books - The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley)

About 100 pages in to The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley I realized that I am now reading two books about adulterous relationships (Heat and Dust being the other). Hmmm. I'm sure Dr. Freud would have something to say about that. I had read a review of this book a while ago and something had made me put it on my library request list but I no longer can remember what it was. I went to pick up the book on such a windy day in New York that on my way through the park I was practically blown off my feet and had to do a little dance with a three-foot-high trash basket that was blown into my path. I looked at the cover and thought, this could be pretty trashy, but I decided to go ahead anyway, although with lowered expectations. Perhaps that's one reason I'm enjoying it so much. The quality of the writing drew me in in an instant:

No one was going very fast. She had meant to time her journey to miss the rush hour, but the minutes and hours of her morning, taken up with returning keys and dropping off graded exams at the university, had drifted off evasively as usual. Her life would never fit inside the lucid shapes she planned for it. So here she was in the middle lane in a queue coming out of Newport in dreary winter dusk and rain, shrunken among towering lorries whose wheels fumed with wet, gripping the steering wheel with both hands, longing to smoke but not daring to fumble a cigarette out of her pack on the dashboard. The cat in his basket, strapped into the passenger seat beside her, slunk round in circles with his fur flattened, expressing precisely the mingled unease and ennui that she felt.

That's from the book's second paragraph and already I have so much information about character and situation. In addition, the story is a good one - Kate leaves behind a successful academic's life in London and returns to her home town of Cardiff to take care of her mother who is succumbing to dementia. She meets an old childhood acquaintance who is in a problematic marriage and - voila - as Emma Bovary might say. Although here it seems there may end up being a problem with the paramour's son. We'll see.

Hadley plumbs her character's inner reaches as a matter of course. Though the novel does have events - action, as they say - it is a characters' experience of that action appears to be what Hadley is most interested in.

She kicked off her shoes and lay on her bed, smoking and giving herself up to hollowness, staring at the Pied Piper in the nursery frieze, who loomed with his jaunty up lifted beckoning trumpet through the purple paint, in such promise of adventure and pleasure. How could she have imagined for one moment that she mattered except as an occasional Sunday-morning friend to this David whose other life was so actual, so unalterably good-looking, so substantially made flesh? She must have thought he was a man with a paper life to screw up and throw away, like some of the people she knew in London. She had screwed up her own professional life as if it didn't matter and stepped outside it into where she was no one.

Hadley is favorably compared to Anne Tyler on the book's cover, and I would agree. The story has a similar feel of recognizable modern life details, interesting characters who are taking some uncharacteristic risk or who are slightly quirky by nature. There's one thing that is distracting me about the modern life details in this book. That is its occasional need to make a highly specific reference, like naming the news program that a character watches on television. I'm not sure why it bothers me. My initial reaction is, oh - that will date this book as soon as the program is off the air - but is that necessarily bad? Sometimes I do read a "period" book and come across a detail no longer of my own era and it jars me. Other times it is simply interesting or charming - a piece of the period, even if that period was sooooo last week. For some reason this one jars me, perhaps just because the rest of the book, although it can be placed specifically in time, is not nailed there irretrievably. As I read of the characters and their actions I get pulled in and it is simply happening right now. Can you come up with reasons you think time-specific references have either 'help' or 'hurt' your reading of something specifically or in general?

1 comment:

Sheila O'Malley said...

//Her life would never fit inside the lucid shapes she planned for it. //

Amazing. I really relate to that.