Let me count the ways Tessa Hadley’s “Late in the Day” captivated me. Most of all, I appreciated its elegant yet simple prose, but its evocative ambiances, astute insights into long-term relationships and the inequities between men and women as well as a refreshingly non-judgmental attitude also contributed to my delight.
The novel is certainly compelling as a multiple character study, yet I often found myself stopping to reread and reflect on the accuracy of an observation or description or admire a particularly pleasing turn of phrase.
The British writer’s seventh novel opens with the sudden death of one of its four middle-aged protagonists, two married couples whose lives have been intertwined in various fluid configurations—best friend, lover, spouse—for decades. Lydia’s announcement of her husband Zachary’s demise by telephone to Christine, and her husband Alex, changes the course of the lives of the three remaining friends. Their grief shatters their long-term bonds, and relationships rearrange into ones that may seem more logical, even inevitable, once the past is re-examined.
Hadley’s description of the survivors’ immediate reactions seem apt. “There was something intolerable in the expectation in that room, strained around Zachary’s absence, which could not be filled. The time when they might have been waiting for him to walk through the door was so recent, so close at hand, that it seemed vividly possible; they could imagine how he’d make his entrance, noisy with reassurances, full of jokes, puzzled by their glum faces. He was always so up to date on everything, so full of news. It seemed impossible he didn’t know this latest fact, his own death.”
Zachary’s first-chapter demise does not alter the fact of his main character status since the narrative is set equally in past and present; it shifts seamlessly in time in alternating chapters. The technique elucidates not only how the death changes the future for the remaining three, but also modifies their perspectives of the past as well as the reader’s.
I found two of the four main characters essentially unlikeable. From the start, Lydia seems selfish and vapid, and Alex, moody,
misogynistic and with an inflated opinion of his own intellect. Neither seems worthy of their artistic, more sensitive spouses or
connected to their respective daughters. When we occasionally may not approve of the actions of Christine or Zachary, Hadley offers more information that modifies a perhaps-too-hasty judgement.
While Zachary’s generous and kind spirit looms large throughout the novel, Christine was the most interesting of its characters. Her grief over losing Zachary literally plus her dismissal of Alex and Lydia lead to her realization that her marriage was no more than “the staving off of solitude.”
Hadley more than likely chose her title for Christine—the character for whom even at midlife, a.k.a. “late in the day,” will take advantage of the opportunity to grow, to begin again, this time with an unobstructed-by-her-husband chance to express herself through her art.