"Clever Girl"
by Tessa Hadley
Originally published in the June 6, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

You may have noticed that I’ve been silent for the past week for which I apologize. It has been one of those tremendously busy weeks working at all hours. I haven’t had time to even read comments here, something I hope to change immediately now that things have slowed down and I’m about to start a holiday.

Despite the busy schedule doing other things than read, it has actually been something of a Tessa Hadley week for me.  Her new novel The London Train came out in the United States a week ago (I haven’t read it yet) and KevinfromCanada ran a review; on a late night over the weekend I took some time to read her short story “Post Production” in the Colm Tóibín edited Spring 2011 issue of Ploughshares (you can actually read that story on the Ploughshares webpage here); and then yesterday I had a chance to read her new story in The New Yorker.

Hadley is no stranger to the short fiction in The New Yorker, having been published there 13 times since 2002 (with five of those occurring since January 2009 when I started reviewing the weekly offerings (and three of those just since November of 2010)). I have been pleased with everything of hers I’ve read, and, despite Kevin’s reservations, I’m anxious to read her new book.

Hadley’s short stories usually cover a great deal of time. We’ll meet a character and before long they will have aged. Yet the interactions we have with the characters are almost always very intimate. For example, “Post Production” opens with an amazing scene where the husband walks into the kitchen, begins talking to his wife, and drops dead on the floor mid-sentence. The shock, the echo, etc. — we see this poor wife very intimately. That story covers a lot of ground from the first wonderful paragraph, taking us quite a distance from the death, though, of course, the death remains clearly in our minds through the rest of the story, as it does for the wife.

All of this to get to “Clever Girl,” which is somewhat similar in this regard. Now, I will say that while I think Hadley’s ability to navigate these characters through time is impressive, I usually finishing the story not liking it quite as much as I did at the beginning when the characters are developing in those intimate settings.

“Clever Girl” is narrated by Stella, the only child to a formerly single woman who’d been struggling. Stella is telling this story with the benefit of hindsight (“I can see it now, from this distance.”), so we get that mix of childish impressions and adult insight. The story begins with a detailed description of her stepfather. We sense in this description and the ones that follow that perhaps their relationship wasn’t the best but that Stella, looking back, sees things quite a bit differently than she did then.

My stepfather wasn’t a big man, not much taller than my mother. He was lithe and light on his feet, handsome, with velvety dark brows, a sensual mouth, and jet-black hairin a crewcut as thick and soft as the pelt of an animal (not that I ever touched it, though sometimes, out of curiosity, I wanted to). His face was one of those whose features seem compacted, as if under pressure within a frame. He was energetic, intelligent, diligent, faithful — a stroke of luck for my mother, a lightning bolt of luck that had illuminated her grinding, narrow future and transformed it.

This transformed future involves moving to a new place by a grove of beech trees. There Stella meets her new friend, the dramatic Madeleine. It is again in one of those intimate moments, carried by good dialogue, when we see Stella’s first impression of Madeleine:

She looked like the kind of girl who would join in whenever there was squealing over something — blood, wasps, veins in school-dinner liver — although she wouldn’t quite mean it, would just be enjoying the noise and the distraction. She was too robust to be properly squeamish.

They grow close, though, and one of their secrets is the mystery of the grove of trees, their devotion to the grove that is at first for fun but eventually becomes more real. Together they start attending an exclusive school and find that they don’t really fit in. In the background of all of this is Stella’s relationship with her stepfather Norbert, or Nor, as she calls him.

Let’s be clear — our fight was mutual; I was set against Nor just as he was against me. Only I was a child, so he had power over me. That’s all tyranny is: it’s not in a personality; it’s in a set of circumstances. It’s being trapped with your enemy in a limited space — a country or a family — where the balance of power between you is unequal and the weaker one has no recourse.

These lines of the story come together nicely, but, again, at the end I couldn’t help but think the development was better than the conclusion. Looking back I can certainly appreciate Hadley’s style; she’s very good, and it surprises me she’s not better known. For whatever reason, though, this story didn’t quite work for me.

That said, I’m a fan of Tessa Hadley and think what she writes is worth reading.

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By |2016-07-01T16:45:01-04:00June 2nd, 2011|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tessa Hadley|Tags: |7 Comments


  1. Aaron June 2, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Man, I feel like a troll. Of the three most recent Hadley stories (“Honor” and “The Trojan Prince”), this was my least favorite of the bunch. The tyranny section you cite is the part I enjoyed the most, and I appreciate the so-called “intimate” moments, but this ageless looking-back narrative voice irritates me. Though the story’s supposed to be about the way in which she becomes a clever girl — growing up as she sheds her childish clothes, finding a sense of self in which she will no longer feel powerless under her step-father [which she accomplishes by “beating” him at homework] — Hadley, as usual, spends an awful lot of time on other moments, like the tree cult, that tie into the overall story only in the most poetically existential of ways (ghost trees, standing tall in the air long after they are made into stumps).

    I suspect this is because we’re reading from different ends: you read forward, waiting to find out where this is going. I read (in this instance) from the back, expecting to understand how this develops. The two don’t meet, so you’re dissatisfied in the ending and I dislike the opening sections. I’m particularly troubled by my lack of understanding of the relationship between mother and daughter (the former’s quite absent), and Hadley sems to contradict herself when it comes to Nor (the name is ironic in that, no?). At first, we’re meant to understand that he’s a popular, good-looking kid, then we’re told that he’s actually from an orphanage in which he had to work extremely hard to distinguish himself; we’re meant to believe that he dislikes Stella (if that’s not all in her head) because he wants the mother to himself, and yet he seems thrilled by the prospect of this new baby. (Another plot point which Stella mentions without having any real reaction to.)

    Above all, I struggle because Hadley writes in what I’d call a very British style: low on action, heavy on description. I wouldn’t mind the pacing being so glacial if I had any sense of where it was going, or at least a sense of accomplishment when it actually arrives at the end. Instead, the piece seems almost entombed by these frigid details; one gets the sense that the ending is more where Hadley wound up being stuck (and her tone shifts entirely in that last paragraph) than where the story would have freely roamed.

  2. Betsy June 2, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    “Clever Girl” contains several wonderful sentences – wonderful because of how they cap what has led up to them, and wonderful because of the ripples that spread from them.

    A much older Stella, a reflective Stella, is looking back on the first year or so after her mother has married Norbert, or Nor, as she calls him, when Stella is 12 or so. After two careful paragraphs that capture Nor’s hearty goodness and energy, Stella comments: “His judgment–not of abstractions like immigration and taxes but knowing how to hold himself, when to be still–is delicate and true.”

    And then she says: “I can see it now, from this distance.”

    As you pointed out, Trevor, the passage of time is important to Hadley. I also think, judging from this section, that timing is important to her. The care Stella has taken with these two long paragraphs that introduce Nor have been building to her admission and give it a power beyond the 8 short words. There is a distance now, of time, or geography, or death, or other separation, and probably, of regret. Hadley catches us there; she has the story in hand. Not so much by the admission, “I can see it now, from this distance,” but by the contrast between Nor’s carefully drawn goodness and what she must have thought of him at the time. What matters about the “I can see it now” sentence is how Stella’s measured and admiring description of Nor holds it up. She sets up the admission perfectly.

    Another sentence made me laugh, also probably because Hadley led up to it so perfectly. Again, there is an element of timing that sets the moment up. After a couple of columns recounting her petulent behavior the day she moved with Nor and her mother into their new house, Stella comments about a doll she’s brought outside: “Unlike my teddy bear, who was capable of irony, this doll–her name was Teenager–was stiffly humorless.”

    I loved this sentence, for itself, and also because of all that came before.

    It may be that one way Hadley manages to deal with the passage of time is through this deliberate pacing, this delicate timing, these deft one-liners.

    A long paragraph addresses summer vacation, during which a neighbor mother is sort of looking after Stella, and Stella finishes up that paragraph with: “…sometimes I cooked up messes of butter and sugar in a pan.”

    Tessa, you made me laugh.

    “Clever Girl” does two things at once: it reveals the girl Stella to have been impossible, in a stumpy adolescent kind of way. But it also shows us the moment, in the middle of a little tug-of-war with Norbert over the physics homework, that Stella realizes she is a “clever girl”. That night, Stella “couldn’t turn the mind-light off.” That is just a great sentence. I loved it, thank you, and everything else in that paragraph.

    She finishes, of course, with a drop dead thought: “I grasped what [the trees outside] were: how they existed and did not exist, how both contradictory realities were possible at once.”

    She was talking about a perception of the reality of trees, but the sentence reminded me of the doll and the teddy bear, how one was humorless and the other one, the teddy bear, was ironic, and how both of them were extensions of Stella – and Hadley.

    That concluding sentence, the one about contradictory realities, presents a pretty complex thought, almost over the top, but the story, with its reserved, almost flat tone, and with its respect for what the characters were going through, holds it up.

    One other thing: there is a careful balance of two contradictory points of view. Stella lets us see her adolescent opnion of Nor, but at the same time, she also deftly gives us her present opinion of him. After cataloguing some of her behaviors, she says, “He never, ever hit me.” There are the two contradictory realities: Stella’s behavior might have provoked another step-father to hit her; Nor never did. In a way, the story is a tribute to Nor.

    We also get these two contradictory realities: Stella is impossible, but she is a “clever girl”, a scholarship girl. Zadie Smith talks about how in the English class system, people normally avoid appearing to get “above themselves”. Here we have a scholarship girl who cultivates “the gift of invisibility” at school, and yet who cannot sleep the night she “gets” the physics problem, feeling as she does, that she’s “devouring the world’s substance.”

    At the same time, though, Hadley reminds us she’s just a girl, and in her new found power, her mother and Nor seemed to be “in the remote distance.” Of course, we already know that now, as an adult, Stella may have come to regret that distance, and that now with the passage of time, her mother and Nor may be both remote and immediate in ways she’d never dreamed.

  3. Betsy June 2, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Aaron, I really enjoyed reading your take. I was writing mine and missed it when you posted it. I especially enjoyed hearing that you read backwards.

    Literally, I sometimes read backwards. Some books read better that way, I think.

    But I’m glad I missed it – now I have to stand by my completely opposite take.

    I want to note that I liked this story better than the last Hadley story. I had some of the same objections to coherence there that you hold for this one.

  4. Jerry June 6, 2011 at 10:42 am

    I thought this the best of the recent Hadley stories in TNY. I agree that the pace is glacial and though usually I am not fond of that style in writing, it didn’t bother me as much this time. The stepfather is an interesting character. It might have been better had it been longer but of course the magazine will not publish lengthy stories anymore *alas!*

  5. Jon June 13, 2011 at 10:12 am

    I really like Hadley’s precise prose style, but for me this story didn’t work at all. I agree completely that the development is much better than than the conclusion (which felt like a large, metaphysical over-reach). The conclusion also felt like it moved into the terrain of almost cliché, schematic writing–stepping out of childish clothes, new awarenesses, etc. Even the relationship with the step-father, because it didn’t develop anywere particularly interesting, sort of devolved into cliché struggle with the willful child (and early, positive descriptions of step-father seemed incongruent with rest of story.)


  6. chris June 19, 2011 at 2:05 am

    I don’t know the author or you folks, or this site, which I found by looking for the full text to send my sister.

    So, o.k., I’m reading between the lines here, but between the part where the coffee spills & the psychics do-it-yourself problem gets solved, there’s something missing.

    She’s in her underwear, alone with Nor at the house, in a story that is suggestive all along and full of building tension & explicitly described conflict between them, nearly, but not yet, open and consummated.

    Then, the problem at school is solved; not only that, she looks to herself as simply radiant, as everything else she sees, like the faucets in the bathroom. She becomes clever.

    I don’t know, people, but I’ve been close to sexually abused women, and I think this story tries to tell more than it says.

    It sure pulls me back away from any misogyny that may have been encroaching into my middle ages.

    Stella is simply stellar.

  7. Ken July 4, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    I’ve come to really enjoy Hadley’s stories and think this is the best yet. I actually reveled in the glacial pace since it was so beautifully written and so nice to read a slow, subtle examination of how someone develops on the inside and how they respond to and observe in detail a new exterior environment. The situtations themselves are hardly novel-trauma over getting a step-parent, adolescent awakening to one’s own true nature and reaching of self-awareness-but when told with such subtle detail and nuance they become fascinating. The distance between the time written about and the time of the narrator’s writing adds a certain suspense and ambiguity that furthers this story’s considerable merit.

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