Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley

The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley is the first book I've received through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. Oddly, I received the book on June 11, about six weeks after the book was available in paperback, and the copy I received was an actual trade paperback, not an ARC. At any rate, I selected several books and received this one, possibly the one book I was unsure I even wanted to read. The synopsis was intriguing, but in a Jerry Springer/train wreck sort of way: Bored Kate Flynn leaves her London academic job and returns to her childhood home to care for her mother. While she is there, a married childhood friend and his seventeen-year-old son "set about their parallel courtships" and "Kate cannot quite resist either man." This all sounds rather seamy, in (I am happy to say) a completely inaccurate way, and I was delighted at the whim that led me to request this book. Tessa Hadley is a gifted writer of lyrical, evocative prose who has crafted a novel (her third) that is touching, funny, and complex.

Kate is both sympathetic and infuriating in her midlife crisis. Hadley has drawn her as a woman who has come untethered; though she has taken a one-year leave of absence instead of quitting her job and let her flat instead of giving it up completely, there is a sense that these steps are just delaying the inevitable. Speaking to David, a public health doctor, she calls her academic life "a kind of dream, a mistake. A life lost in books. What an abyss of difference, between your usefulness and mine. How did I choose it: this play life? I should have been a nurse. We carelessly make one choice after another and our lives pile up." She is not always nice, to put it bluntly, and there were times I didn't like her. Though her purported reason for moving home to Wales is her aging mother, it's clear that her mother is a means of escape from a life she had thought she wanted. When she first comes home, she finds her mother asleep and nearly decides to drive back to London without waking her, and she can be sharp with her mother. She takes her childhood friend Carol (who should be nominated for sainthood) for granted. She throws a lavish party purely to spite the practical David and his wife, Suzie. She tells seventeen-year-old Jamie, who has fallen in love with her, that he's too young to be her friend. But despite all these flaws, or perhaps because they make her real, I hoped that she would find what she was looking for by the end. I was expecting, rather dejectedly, for the story to end without any meaning found, without the hollows of life being filled, and I was both surprised and satisfied by the ending. Kate remakes her life, but not in any trite way, nor in the way I had expected.

This is a quiet book, with many small movements rather than a single dramatic action. Hadley's prose is well-suited to the story (or rather, stories, as the subplots share a dance floor with Kate's midlife crisis, even if they don't cut in), with simple, accurate language, like this description of her reunion with David: "They were falling into a pattern of friendship that had been, before Kate came back to live in Cardiff, exactly her idea of the sort of thing that would evolve in a place like this between grown-up cultured people" and elegant description, as when she first arrives at home: "The falling rain was blotted up overhead by the tall monkey puzzle tree or pattered onto the evergreen bushes. Below, on the lake, an invisible duck blundered splashily. A cold perfume of pines and bitter garden mulch seemed to her like the smell of the past itself." I marked dozens of pages where I found beautiful, lyrical prose or turns of phrase so elegant and perfect they made me smile. Hadley is funny, too. David's wife has fallen in with new hippie friends, and this is his parenthetical description of Menna and Neil's old van when they come to take Suzie camping: "its puttering filthy exhaust more polluting, surely, than anything they could make up for with their puritanical veganism." After Jamie cuts the grass, she tells him, "I think it looked better with the grass long. That grass was beautiful, it blew in the wind, it was blond like hair, the sound it made was like the sea. Now what does it look like? Stubbled and ugly, a poor cropped head." When Jamie looks crestfallen, she laughs.

The word "hollow" and variations on it appear too many times to count, and this is no coincidence. At forty-three, Kate feels hollow, that her life is empty. She doesn't take care of herself; she smokes and drinks, but rarely eats. The return to Wales doesn't immediately help; she reflects that "She had screwed up her own professional life as if it didn't matter and stepped outside it into where she was no one." She talks of being unmoored, of longing to be broken down and remade. Even literature is hollow: "Nothing written now has enough in it. I have to swap about, as soon as I get the hang of what they're up to; they're only ever up to one thing at a time." This is certainly not the case with this novel. In addition to Kate's search for meaning, we have glimpses into David and Suzie's failing marriage, Billie's failing health, Jamie's youthful search for meaning in his life (which makes for an interesting contrast to Kate's). This is the sort of book that I would have loved writing papers on in college. The story is unbelievably rich, and I could easily make this review pages and pages long, but I'll stop here. I'd recommend this book to anyone who looking for a rich, complex novel about the human experience, written in gorgeous, decadent prose.

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