Jonathan Cape, £14.99, 231pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Married Love, By Tessa Hadley
The short stories in Tessa Hadley's latest collection aren't interlinked, but it's easy to believe that her characters might well invite one another over for drinks. Indeed, her portraits of provincial middle-class types are so vividly drawn that it's hard not to imagine you haven't met some of them before. While covering much the same domestic territory as Helen Simpson, Hadley is prepared to tackle the woolier complexities of her characters' interior lives, even at the expense of her stories' final shape.
Like more distilled versions of her novels – she has written four - these stories are shored up with sentences and paragraphs that demand immediate re-reading for their cleverness and warmth. A writer intrigued by intimacy - between men and women, parents and children, cousins and colleagues – Hadley often arranges her stories around sex, and abortive encounters.
In the title story, 19-year-old Lottie, the youngest of a close-knit bohemian family, announces over breakfast that she's getting married. The idea of marriage is shocking enough, but Lottie's parents are yet more aghast to discover that her intended is Edgar Lennox – a music tutor at least 40 years her senior, and a man who "seemed to represent the ideal of an elderly creative artist: tall, very thin, with a shock of upstanding white hair".
This story, as so many others, traces the fall-out of relationships over the course of time. Having fathered three little girls, Edgar returns to the calm acres of his ex-wife's house, the woman who was behind "the whole production of Edgar as exceptional and distinguished."
Life's unpredictable trajectory is also touched on in "The Godchildren". Here, three middle-aged misfits, once close as teenagers, come under scrutiny as they gather in a wisteria-clad semi to sort out their deceased godmother's possessions. Their stories of unfulfilled sexual promise are artfully entwined around memories of a comically embarrassing episode exposing their genteel godmother's foxier side.
For Hadley, the heart is never governed by the brain, and her grown-ups are likely to end up in a state of as much erotic confusion as her likeable adolescents. Some of the best stories in the book revolve around large family gatherings, where the author leads us masterfully through the emotional spectrum from thwarted toddlers to demanding matriarchs. It's at these boozy lunches and suburban soirées that Hadley takes a long hard look at where old loves might die and new futures begin. This party is well worth attending.
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