Even if you're successful at work and in your personal life, things can grow abruptly precarious in late middle age. British writer Tessa Hadley covers this territory with freshness, subtlety and a deep, shifting empathy in her new novel.

Share story

Book review

Even if you’re successful at work and in your personal life, things can grow abruptly precarious in late middle age. You may think you have the big questions settled. Your career might seem solidly on-track, your intimate relationships purring along nicely, if a little dully.

Then come the sidelong blows: careers derailed by economic crashes or other unruly circumstances. Friends and relations behaving wildly out of character, making you wonder who they were all along. A spouse getting sick — or, in a worst-case scenario, dying.

British writer Tessa Hadley (“The Past,” “Clever Girl”) covers this territory with freshness, subtlety and a deep, shifting empathy in her new novel, “Late in the Day.” Her prose has the penetrating quality of Henry James at his most accessible (Hadley has written a book-length study of James) and is alert, as Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen were, to how time sculpts, warps or casually destroys us.

“Late in the Day” focuses on two couples in their 50s whose lives have been intertwined since their 20s. Levelheaded Christine, an artist who enjoys modest success, is married to Alex who, after early struggles, has found his niche as an educator. Wealthy gallery owner Zachary, a jovial bear of a man, is husband to the flamboyant yet oddly passive Lydia, Christine’s best friend since grammar school. (The men’s friendship predates their college years, too.)

The blow arrives on page four, when Zachary suddenly dies of a heart attack. Christine, Alex and Lydia rally around each other as close friends do. Alex drives to Glasgow to tell Lydia and Zachary’s daughter Grace about her father’s death so she won’t have to get the news over the phone — or worse, via Facebook. Alex and Christine’s daughter Isobel drops everything to console Grace. Christine and Alex invite Lydia to stay with them for as long as she likes.

Still, no one can deny that their little circle has been thrown completely out of whack. “Of all of us,” Christine reflects, “he’s the one we couldn’t afford to lose.” His survivors struggle to “adapt to this new torn-off shape of our lives.”

“Shape” turns out to be what “Late in the Day” is all about. It’s there in the sight of Zachary’s bedroom slippers, which “lay where they’d fallen when he last kicked them off, holding the shape of his feet, darkened with his sweat.” It’s there in Christine’s paintings, with “their air of proposing a visual puzzle, defining a shape by its absence.” And it was evident decades ago in Christine’s malleable notions of herself when Alex was courting her.

“In their early days,” she recalls, “she’d felt that she could leave him easily if they quarreled or she changed her mind. She was free! Love was his idea, not hers. Then as time passed Alex’s force had melted something resisting in her, so that she had taken on a new shape, fitting against his.”

The novel itself is beautifully contoured, as its contemporary narrative alternates with three extensive flashbacks that alter our perspective on the tensions at play in the present. As Hadley uncovers more and more layers in the characters and their tangled pasts, the initially flighty Lydia begins to seem more grounded than one first appreciated, while Alex’s strictness of temperament turns out to have a breaking point, and Christine reveals ruthless qualities of mind that are a surprise even to her. The couples’ grown children are just as vividly drawn. These are intelligent people with richly furnished minds, doing the best they can and sometimes falling short.

Each phrase of the novel etches further protean details into Hadley’s portraits of her cast. As analysis and action fuse into character revelation, deception itself becomes a telling affair. In a pivotal passage, Christine ponders how, later in life, “truth” no longer seems a solid “core” to be discovered “underneath a series of obfuscations and disguises. In the long run, weren’t the disguises just as interesting, weren’t they real too?”

That complex shading, that illuminating ambiguity, makes “Late in the Day” a quiet triumph.


“Late in the Day” by Tessa Hadley, Harper, 273 pp., $26.99

Tessa Hadley will read from “Late in the Day,” 7 p.m. Jan. 23, Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com)