Ambivalence and Midlife Malaise Swamp Lumbering Novel

By Tessa Hadley
Henry Holt, 339 pages, $26

At one point in Tessa Hadley’s new novel, Kate and the married object of her (undeclared) affections, David, attend a music recital together. Beforehand, they share an umbrella. During the concert, they glance at each other meaningfully when people clap in the wrong places. Afterward, David steers her gently through the crowd. As Kate registers every intimacy between them, she also mocks herself for doing so: “Even Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, Kate thought, wasn’t satisfied with just this; and that was before 1968. I’ll die, she thought, if more doesn’t happen.” Fans of Ms. Hadley’s earlier work may feel similarly impatient with the glacial pace of The Master Bedroom.

Kate is a professor in Slavic studies who smokes and plays the violin and means only half of what she says. At 41, she’s left her university post and returned to Cardiff and her childhood home, Firenze, to take care of her mother, Billie, who’s cheerfully losing her mind.

Is Kate moving forward or backward? Firenze is an enchanted house of worn silk armchairs and verandas and stained glass windows on the stairs. Nothing is ever thrown away; there are thousands of books; the lawn has become a meadow. Kate plays duets with her mother and works on the occasional Russian translation. In her wild youth, she’d set herself the challenge of having sex in every one of Firenze’s bedrooms; now it’s Billie who wanders through the house at night, sleeping in whatever bed strikes her fancy. Only the door to the master bedroom remains closed.

David, an acquaintance from childhood, is a public health consultant who believes in vaccines and human progress and having your tires checked. After Kate runs into him again, she wonders at the ephemeral nature of her life: He has a pretty wife and three children—does this man who once seemed so priggish actually represent everything solid and good? But David’s wife, Suzie, hasn’t been the same since a swan crashed into her windshield: She can’t shake the sense that she’s been struck by the falling body of David’s first wife, Francesca, who threw herself out a window 15 years before, leaving him with a 3-year-old child to raise. Now Suzie has become obsessed with the spirit world and afraid of her husband; she won’t let David touch her. As their domestic life slowly unravels, both David and his eldest son, Jamie—unbeknownst to each other—find themselves dropping by Firenze.

Tessa Hadley has made her name investigating the competing claims of adultery and domesticity. Her novels thrive on tumult as various children and pets and lovers careen in and out of one another’s lives, and yet her perceptions are often so acute that one longs for a little more time to relish these dramas as they unfold.

Be careful what you wish for. In The Master Bedroom there are fewer players than usual, and they proceed with uncharacteristic caution, paralyzed by various forms of midlife malaise. Suzie stops sleeping with David, but she doesn’t move out. David is ambivalent. Kate is distracted by her mother. The only person who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to pursue it is Jamie, who falls desperately in love with Kate and Firenze and everything they both represent. (Jamie would be happy to have sex with her in every room of the house.)

Why is this novel so frustrating? Even in a book called The Master Bedroom, all would be forgiven if these ambivalences were developed—if the fact that nothing happens felt like the point. With fewer characters and less plot, we want a deeper understanding of the lovers’ inner lives. And though Ms. Hadley describes certain moments with characteristic insight (Billie’s panic when she interrupts Kate having sex; David’s fury when his wife ruins his enjoyment of a long anticipated Haydn oratorio), other more obvious climaxes in the narrative are glossed over or elided, and it’s difficult not to feel that our sentiments, too, are being toyed with.

The characters remain mysterious to themselves, but also—and this is the unforgivable part—to us. It’s as if Kate’s mannered self-deprecations and David’s lack of self-knowledge finally rule the day, and we turn away from them, disenchanted. In fact, the sharp sadness we feel at the novel’s end, when we learn that Firenze may be sold, only underscores how cavalier we’ve come to feel about the people who’ve filled it with voices and music.

Alice Truax, a freelance editor, lives in Brooklyn.

Ambivalence and Midlife Malaise Swamp Lumbering Novel