In Married Love and Other Stories, Tessa Hadley digs deep into the unconscious of family life. Her dense prose offers a tour into the emotional contours of sibling relationships, parenthood, and the kind of intergenerational melodrama to be found in weighty novels. She has a keen sense about the psychology of children and teenagers, who are brimming with awareness and curiosity about the world they inhabit, but are highly vulnerable to the hegemonic power of parenthood. Hadley understands how that power constricts and limits the freedom of young people to do things, and also how the power of parents inspires a need to escape the boundaries of family life. Here, escape is expressed in close or clingy friendships with someone in school or work, the desperation to marry someone much older, or fantasies about exploring unfamiliar emotional terrains, full of enchanting mysteries and surprises they might encounter along the way.
For Hadley, one’s formative years are more than sites of nostalgia, they’re also references about adulthood, and how someone evolves over time. A perfect example is “Pretending,” a story about two girls, and their friendship. One is Roxanne, and the other is the story’s nameless narrator. Looking back, the nameless narrator tells us she could’ve ended her oppressive friendship with Roxane back in childhood, but she didn’t; because she was swept up by Roxane’s energy, like a necessary addiction, especially her penchant for playing pretend games. Years later, she looks back on that friendship and learns something about her own character, “What I learned, playing with her, was that I was suggestible, unusually suggestible. Later in life it turned out that I was the perfect subject for hypnotism: the hypnotist only had to wave his hand pretty much once across in front of my eyes and I was gone.” As an adult, our nameless narrator struggles to survive the dullness of an insurance office, working like a peon, while Roxanne becomes an administrator, the Child Health Directorate, in a big hospital.
In the title story, “Married Love,” a college student marries an older man. Lottie is nineteen, but she can easily pass as thirteen or fourteen. She still lives at home with her parents and three siblings. Then, Lottie’s family is shocked when she announces her intention to marry Edgar Lennox, who’s forty years older, and worse, he’s also a professor in the college she goes to. But Lottie defends her decision to marry him, and tells her family, “I’ve met someone quite different from anyone I’ve ever known before, different from any of you. He’s a great man. He’s touched my life, and transformed it. I’m lucky he even noticed I exist.” Lottie’s justification of this marriage makes us wonder why she’s desperate to marry this man. Does she feel alienated from her family? Or was it mere infatuation for someone who knew how to charm the impressionable young adult with the right words? Edgar is seventy-two, after his third baby with Lottie. He never steps into the center of the plot, as though he’s merely a background character, not interesting enough to rival Lottie as the main protagonist of the story.
In many ways, the collection is populated by characters who feel they’ve deviated from the norm like Lottie, or marginalized by the in-crowd like Roxane, which is nothing new. In fact, we probably consume their stories everyday through Hollywood. Their lives are governed by an internal compass to act on emotions that might result in emotional desolation that’s oddly satisfying, like Julia in the story “In the Country.” Julia’s husband was raised in a big family. A vacation to the country with their children, to meet the in-laws, feels refreshing. One night, Julia takes a stroll alone for some air away from everyone, and meets the boyfriend of her sister-in-law, Seth. Now I won’t tell you what happened in that encounter. Find out, and grab the collection now. But here’s a clue from Hadley, “That evening all the ordinary things that she and Seth said to one another, all the times they brushed past each other or sat down together, were a code for something else enormously important that had happened, but did not appear.”