I was scheduled as the last stop on the TLC Book Tour for Clever Girl earlier this month, but hadn’t finished reading it at the time I was due to post. I apologize for missing my deadline, but I have a few thoughts on the book to share now.
Given some of the turns that the life of Tessa Hadley’s titular character, Stella, takes, the “cleverness” of our Clever Girl Isn’t always obvious. What is apparent is her resourcefulness, resolve, and ability to pick herself back up when the world knocks her down. Her edges are a little rough–although less than they seem to be at first–but she has a tough resilience at her core.
Stella is formed by the times she lives through, most notably the cultural changes occurring during her young adulthood in the 1960s and ’70s, and shaped by circumstances; raised by a single mother, perhaps it’s not so surprising that she becomes one herself, twice over.
Stella’s narrative voice is reflective, conversational, and very matter-of-fact, and the structure of Clever Girl is chronological, yet episodic. This is fiction that feels rather like memoir, and that seems appropriate to this recounting of what’s essentially a pretty ordinary, quiet life story–although I wouldn’t describe Stella’s life as “uneventful,” this novel felt primarily like an extended, highly-developed character study to me. It’s a credit to Hadley’s writing that Stella is a character worth reading about.
Clever Girl is an indelible story of one woman’s life, unfolded in a series of beautifully sculpted episodes that illuminate an era, moving from the 1960s to today, from one of Britain’s leading literary lights—Tessa Hadley—the author of the New York Times Notable Books Married Love and The London Train.
Clever Girl is a powerful exploration of family relationships and class in modern life, witnessed through the experiences of an English woman named Stella. Unfolding in a series of snapshots, Tessa Hadley’s moving novel follows Stella from the shallows of childhood, growing up with a single mother in a Bristol bedsit in the 1960s, into the murky waters of middle age.
Clever Girl is a story vivid in its immediacy and rich in drama—violent deaths, failed affairs, broken dreams, missed chances. Yet it is Hadley’s observations of everyday life, her keen skill at capturing the ways men and women think and feel and relate to one another, that dazzles.
“My mother and I lived alone. My father was supposed to be dead, and I only found out years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old. I should have guessed this–should have seen the signs, or the absence of them. Why hadn’t we kept any of his things to treasure? Why whenever he came up in conversation, which was hardly ever, did my mother’s face tighten, not in grief or regret but in disapproval–the same expression she had if she tasted food or drink she didn’t like (she was fussy, we were both fussy, fussy together)?”