Tessa Hadley’s third novel is her most ambitious and successful to date, marking a return to the taut form of her much-lauded 2002 debut, Accidents in the Home. (Hadley’s second and oft-criticized book, Everything Will Be All Right , was a lumbering multigenerational saga that may come to occupy the place that The Years does in Virginia Woolf’s oeuvre—an experimental text later seen as anomalous in light of the author’s more powerfully compressed style.) Offering only four main characters in The Master Bedroom, Hadley can engage in deeper moral and psychological scrutiny of each.
Kate Flynn is an academic who has temporarily set aside her work ambitions to attend to family matters, in this case an eighty-three-year-old mother who is living alone in a decaying redbrick villa in Cardiff, Wales, and beginning to suffer from dementia. Her daughter is a sophisticated London woman, lushly attired (“Kate looked brilliant in a dress of some sort of flimsy black transparent stuff that came halfway down her calves, embroidered with green and gold beads; she wore tall green shoes and dramatic glass jewelry like pantomime emeralds”) but bored with her life as a Slavic-studies professor. Although an accomplished scholar and translator, she feels “the passion itself diminishing, behind the ever-more-accomplished show . . . the obedient processing of the latest fad” and admits that the leave of absence she has been granted to care for her mother seems less a sacrifice than a relief—an opportunity to figure out what will animate her days as she moves into middle age with no romantic prospects or family.
Kate’s return to the house she was born in, where three generations of her cultured, Jewish, upper-middle-class family have resided, entangles her in the past that she thought she had left behind when she assumed her more urbane life in the city. Kate thinks she is coming back to “this nowhere. Wales, for God’s sake!” but is surprised to find Cardiff transformed into a more cultured locale. Hadley describes the changes with a keen sociological eye: There are artsy cafés with “posters advertising drum ’n’ bass, yoga classes, and online creative writing groups” and the architecturally innovative Millennium Centre (it has a “curved armadillo back”), offering performances of Handel’s Jephtha. It is at one of these performances that Kate reconnects with the younger brother of her friend Carol, David Roberts, whom Kate once made an abortive pass at during a drunken teenage party. David is now a “stolid and cautious” public-health consultant who is in a disintegrating marriage to Suzie—a formerly pragmatic primary school teacher who has taken up with New Age hippies. Kate’s attraction to David is complicated by the crush his son, Jamie— a fractious adolescent who is the offspring of David’s first wife, Francesca, a classmate of Kate’s who committed suicide shortly after Jamie’s birth—develops on her. When Jamie encounters Kate in a coffee shop and learns that she once knew his mother, he begins turning up at her house regularly, offering to cut the grass or take Kate and her mother out rowing.
Hadley has a talent for endowing each of her characters with an especially robust point of view. The reader witnesses Suzie’s desperate insecurity, which hardens into hatred, over the fact that David will never talk to her about Francesca—“Tell me,” she pleads. “It’s important”—but lest the reader think David an insensitive, coldly reserved type, Hadley shows that he is only trying to protect Suzie by hiding the extent of Francesca’s illness. (“She began to imagine it wasn’t a baby growing inside her but a demon, which would split her open and kill her when it was born. He didn’t want to tell Suzie about that.”) Likewise, Hadley reveals that Kate can be self-involved and petulant—she calls up an ex who she knows is still in love with her when she needs an ego boost—but in the end she agonizes more deeply over her betrayals than does the dutiful, responsible David.
In lieu of dramatic action, Hadley deploys her ensemble of viewpoints and then knots them together in unexpected ways—a technique owing a great deal to Henry James. (Hadley wrote her Ph.D. dissertation about him.) In the past, she’s done this with what one reviewer described as a “studied impartiality,” the result being characters who make equal claims on one another, their interactions failing to spark much ethical tension. Now, by occupying herself with fewer characters and spending more time analyzing the motivations of each, Hadley is able to present a world in which people not only build and destroy relationships but ponder the moral implications of doing so. Suzie and David come to blows before considering how to forgive each other; Kate succumbs to temptation but tries to make amends; Jamie’s emotions are tumultuous because he is trying to discern how to have a “real life—people actually feeling things and being things”—rather than what he thinks is David and Suzie’s life: “driving round picking the kids up from things or dropping them off, booking a two-week holiday each year, machines at home to do everything that nobody uses.”
At different times in The Master Bedroom, both Jamie and Kate use the metaphor of a window to describe the thing that separates them from “the right way to live, the good way.” Kate believes she is locked out of it because she has scorned it (“She was filled with the sensation of having made a terrible mistake, not in falling for David but in how she had lived her whole life before it happened, all her efforts not to be banal”), but in her consummate novel, Hadley shows that the attempt to define what is legitimate is a complicated endeavor—not impossible, but not to be achieved without a certain amount of suffering.
Andrea Walker, a frequent contributor to Bookforum, is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.