Sometimes a character reveals her layers slowly, showing the tiniest glimpse of soul spread thin over many pages. A novel builds and builds, progressing to an explosive end, and we hurry toward it — unable to pause before we know the illustrious End.
Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl fits the first description, certainly, but this is the sort of novel — definitely literary fiction — that enfolds you gradually. There is no dynamic pay-off, no shocking reveal or plot twist. It’s quiet, enveloping, sharply-focused and beautifully written. As with The London Train, Hadley draws us deeply into the lives of her characters — and though we may not love these people or feel endeared to them, exactly, they are alive and memorable and real to us.
Stella was real to me.
From the beginning of Clever Girl to its satisfying end, we span half a century of our narrator’s life. Stella morphs from a young girl preparing to share her single mother with a new husband to an impetuous, lonely teen mother and, later, a middle-aged woman wondering where everything got so twisty. The story opens in 1960s England and progresses almost to present-day — a transition that could have felt clunky and odd in the hands of a less skilled author, but believe me: Hadley is more than up for the task.
What kept me so captivated by Stella, her sons and the strange layers of their lives was absolutely Hadley’s writing. Gripping, detailed and so focused that sometimes it took my breath away, this is not the sort of story you tear through at breakneck speed — or skim halfheartedly with “Survivor” on in the background. To look away from the text for even a moment is to miss some gorgeous, transient moment; and as Stella’s story is revealed slowly in careful insertions throughout the text, it has a very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feel. I loved that.
An older, wiser, more chastened Stella is obviously recalling the details of her youth — and we know things about the fate of characters long before the action is revealed. In that way, Stella functions as our omniscient narrator; even in the brilliant moments, we know darkness is coming. That effect left me both curious and unsettled, and I often hurried through passages so I could finally uncover the fate of these poor people.
And poor they were. Not financially, maybe, but definitely in spirit. Valentine, Stella’s irreverent boyfriend, is a fascinating character; I didn’t guess his secret for a while, but then it was impossible to ignore. He was the typical “bad boy” arriving to both fascinate and horrify Stella and Madeleine, her best friend, and you couldn’t help but wonder what was hiding beneath that sheath of dark and dirty hair. All in good time.
While I didn’t love Stella, I respected her — and everything she’d gone through. She makes some questionable choices, yes, but it wasn’t hard to separate those calls from the overarching hippie-commune-love-fest of the 1960s and ’70s. In time, she grows into a respectable person and mother — even if she seems to need rescuing from various men to finally pull herself together.
If you love literary fiction and character studies, Clever Girl is a fantastic novel that provokes questions of love and purpose through life’s dips and turns. But if you’re a reader who leans more heavily into action-packed plots or prefer a faster pace, I could see Hadley’s novel leaving you a bit cold. For me? Well, I loved it, just as I loved The London Train.
Hadley is a truly gifted author. Honestly, I’m in awe of her skill — and will look forward to reading more of her work.
4 out of 5!