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Late In the Day

May 23, 2019

I got interested in reading Tessa Hadley’s new novel, Late In the Day, because Ann, at Café Society, said that it’s one of the few character-driven novels she has enjoyed. It’s about four fifty-something friends who are much like me and Ron and the two friends from college we’ve chosen to live near and raise our now-twenty-something children with. The four friends in the novel were originally romantically involved with each other, and that adds an element, although not a terribly important one. What does seem very true to life, though, is how each of the four have judged their lives and aspirations partly by what the others thought. It takes the death of one of these friends to reveal the extent to which the other three have been content to take their identity from the personal and professional relationships between the four of them.

The parallels to my life seem close in effect, although they’re not similar in details. Ron and I and our friends Ben and Carol all work at the same college, in different roles. In the novel, Zachary and Lydia inhabit the art world, while Alex and Christine are in teaching and art. Zachary is the one who dies suddenly, leaving the other three reassessing where they thought their lives would go and where they’ve ended up.

Alex had a book of poems published early in life, and we learn that he and Christine “hadn’t spoken now for years about his writing, or his having given it up. Once or twice long ago, when they were first together, she’d urged him to set aside time for more poetry, thinking this would make him happier. He’d turned on her in irritation: what could she possibly understand about his writing, or not writing? Long-married couples sometimes do end up entrenched in a pattern of avoiding talking about something that matters but that they’ve failed to talk about productively, and then they are never really able to talk about it again.

Sometimes when that has happened, there’s a moment when someone outside the marriage takes an interest. In the novel, there are several moments when Lydia takes an interest in Alex’s poetry and Zachary takes an interest in Christine’s paintings. There’s adultery–because this is a novel and because Alex sees a potential in Lydia and Christine saw a vulnerability in Zachary that no one else could see.

Less dramatically, though, Christine and Alex have settled into years of marriage and their relationship to each other is no longer a priority. Christine, whose point of view we see most often, thinks “she and Alex were so unlike, really: associated through some accident in their youth—the accident of his choosing her, because of what he thought she was. Since that beginning, they had both changed their skins so often. Marriage simply meant that you hung on to each other through the succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to.”

17361630_10211034627174691_7513464071138310144_nIn their early days together, the two couples in the novel talked about finding a place to live together, maybe “a crumbling palazzo in Italy where they could all live together like aristocrats, growing grapes and keeping goats, making their own wine and cheese.” In our early days together, Ben and Ron and Carol and I used to draw designs for houses we could share.

I have the sense that the women in the novel absorbed slightly more traditional gender roles than Carol and I ever did. Christine thinks that “Alex’s force had melted something resisting in her, so that she had taken on a new shape, fitting against his. But it wasn’t always his fault when things were difficult. Under the surface of their relationship she often fought against him: against his authority, which he took for granted. He was bewildered sometimes, she thought, by the twists and turns of her dissatisfaction, and how she manoeuvred to put herself in the right. Women used their pleasantness sometimes as a weapon, a subtle knife.”

The group dynamics, though, seem right on. When one of the four has to get some work done during a vacation, the spouse from the other couple says “sympathetically…can’t it wait?” When he answers that “there’s a deadline,” his wife chimes in: “because of course…[he] always has to be doing something more important than everyone else. But her comment wasn’t fair, because the grant application really did need to go in: she had reassured him, when they were still in England, that he would be able to submit it from here.” Sometimes it’s not what has to be done, it’s how one of us flaunts it before the others, as if showing them how busy and important we are, how necessary we are to other people. It’s also how the rest of us might feel that’s happening, even though the busy person might not mean to rub anything in. This particular moment of irritation in the novel ends up with Christine complaining to her friends “you’ve noticed how he bestows his presence on us, as if he really ought to be elsewhere” and Alex complaining to them that “I’m never supposed to enjoy myself in my own way.”

In small ways I identify with Lydia, like at the moment she “looked around with faint irritability at her husband dozing and her friend absorbed in drawing: their absences bored her. She was too alertly vigilant, herself, ever to fall asleep during the day.”

In larger ways I identify with Christine, as most readers will, like when she’s thinking about their child going off to college and says “something’s over, though. I didn’t think it would be over so quickly. It felt so monumental and permanent, when it began.”

The three remaining characters sort themselves out in ways they couldn’t have anticipated, never cleanly, because long friendships and marriages are often more elastic than brittle. The ending is about the two women outside of time and conflicts, at the seaside together, as they were in a dream Christine wakes up from and describes to Lydia in an email: “salty air and waves breaking on a beach, gulls wheeling and calling, rock pools, plastic buckets of seawater, the tide’s debris of wet seaweed, white cuttlefish bones.” It’s as if Christine finally realizes that their perceptions of each other matter less than the experiences they have shared. We become what we do, not what we’ve hoped for.

Ron and I and Ben and Carol often dream of the seaside as an idea of happiness. Sometimes it seems that all the problems of our lives would be solved if we could live there together, with the sound of the waves in the background. But the death of our friend Al has already made us more conscious that what we’ve already done will someday have to stand for itself, without us to present our own version of events. Is that a sad thing? It is, at any rate, kind of late in the day to begin worrying too much about it now.



7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2019 2:35 pm

    I grew up surrounded by family – a gigantic extended family in Mexico City, and my dad’s in Michigan.

    But my kids did not (I went to NJ to work for Princeton, and got stuck there for 37 years when I became ill). And they have made family of good friends from college, something I never did.

    It makes a huge difference. In many ways, family is always going to be there, but, unless you marry a college friend and stay married, most of those friends could disappear tomorrow. It is a precarious difference.

    I don’t know what you can do about it, other than be loyal to the friends you’ve made, and we are, but I knew things would change when one of my best friends, one I reared children with, sat in the cul-de-sac watching our kids with, moved away.

    There is no strong tie to bring us back together; we have gone from close to distant very quickly, with no way back. We thought we’d be eternal.

    • May 24, 2019 11:27 am

      One of the things I tell graduating seniors every year is that if you want to stay friends with your college friends, you’ve got to find opportunities to see them in person.
      Family is different, we’d hope, in that there will still be a relationship no matter what.

      • May 24, 2019 12:41 pm

        That’s what my kids do: spend time to continue the friendships in person.

        It’s also not fair: sometimes internal relationships in the group of friends result in one person being essentially kicked out of the group – an example is when a couple of them form a couple and then break up. It has a parallel with divorce, which can cost one of the partners their friends.

        I’m just sorry I had what I haven’t been able to give my children, and I have it to this day. I thought the spouse had it, too, but that turned out to be an illusion – so the kids have to make their way in the world alone.

        Except for each other, which is why I’ve instituted the deliberate family vacation system: they are to pick a time and place, in consultation with each other (and a nod to us), and then we all go. If the three of them do this together, there is a good chance it will happen for their parents as well, as long as we are able.

        But I want them to have each other – because at this point they very much still like each other, and even that can be fragile. They have no backup. It hurts me to know that. And that MY illness is the main reason they do not know their cousins well.

  2. May 23, 2019 4:02 pm

    We’re at a point in our lives where I wonder how I’ll be remembered so I can see how this hit home for you.

    • May 24, 2019 11:28 am

      Yes. The characters in the novel all see the one who died as the one who held them together, but I think it would have been that way if it had been any of the other three instead.

  3. May 24, 2019 9:04 am

    I’m glad you thought as well of the novel as I did, Jeanne and that it has clearly struck such a personal chord for you. That is the relationship between us and story at its very best.

    • May 24, 2019 11:29 am

      Absolutely. It’s not the kind of novel I usually like, so I would never have read it if it hadn’t been for your review!

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