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BookBrowse Reviews Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

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Late in the Day

by Tessa Hadley

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley X
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2019, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2020, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Late in the Day is an exploration of the complicated webs that are at the center of our primary relationships.

Married couples Zachary and Lydia, and Alex and Christine, have been a close foursome since their early 20s, but 30 years later, when Zachary suddenly dies of a heart attack, the remaining three are left to pick up the pieces and reexamine their lives. Lydia moves into Alex and Christine's apartment to grieve, but her presence forces an acknowledgement of the growing emotional chasm between the three of them, and their close proximity incites a second life-altering event. Late in the Day unfolds in flashbacks that explore how each of these characters became who they are, and how lifelong relationships (romantic and otherwise) evolve over time, meeting challenges or succumbing to them.

All four of these characters are vividly realized and remarkably complex; over the course of the novel their backstories work in tandem with their present-day thoughts and choices to gel into a clear picture. Alex is a former poet whose inexplicable decision to abandon his writing has perplexed his friends and wife for years. Christine is a painter who, similarly, locks her studio upon hearing of Zachary's death and exhibits a near pathological anxiety about reentering it to work. Lydia was a bright, precocious student alongside Christine at university, but after marriage seemed satisfied with being a wife and mother; without Zachary, her sense of self has been diminished.

Zachary's death opens up a vacuum, disrupting a carefully balanced equilibrium and allowing for the resurfacing of old grievances and the opening of wounds that never fully healed. Christine declares that Zachary was "the one we couldn't afford to lose," and this turns out to be the case in ways she never could have imagined. Tessa Hadley is brilliant at writing emotional description, capturing perfectly the way characters feel and the depth of their grieving. Christine, for example, is "withdrawn inside her flesh, concealed in its sealed chamber."

By the end of the novel some readers may find themselves strongly disapproving of Alex – he doesn't take his wife's art seriously, he's unfaithful and capricious, and an all-around downer – but the fact that he's difficult to hate speaks further to Hadley's character-building skill. Alex is a miserable person, and his flaws are born from wounds that go back to childhood. It's hard not to be sympathetic toward him. Furthermore, Lydia and Christine do not emerge blameless in the complicated interpersonal drama that unfolds. Hadley may, in fact, have made her characters too self-focused, their failings are too evident and dissected endlessly. To put it plainly, everyone is slightly insufferable because of their constant introspective navel-gazing. The couples' daughters are slightly more likable, but this may be because they are not as well developed.

To be fair, Hadley is aware, to some extent, of how these characters appear to the reader, putting words of censure in Christine's mouth as she references the foursome's "bourgeois sensibility" and "privilege of subtlety and irony." This is not to say their problems and ruminations are not important – the difficulty of maintaining a marriage over decades, the intersection between art and one's personal life, the success and failure of different approaches to grief – these are worthy topics of contemplation. But this heady introspection is, as Christine says, usually the domain of the privileged.

Christine also voices what is perhaps the novel's primary thesis: "Marriage simply meant you hung on to each other through the succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to." This is where Late in the Day truly shines as it investigates the minutiae of marriage, how a thousand tiny incidents and comments make up the larger picture of a relationship, and can tip the scales toward success or failure. This is the type of tender emotional realism for which Hadley is rightly celebrated.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review is from the Late in the Day. It first ran in the January 23, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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