Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Tessa Hadley’s “Under the Sign of the Moon” was originally published in the March 24, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
Despite the fact that I love Hadley’s work, I usually find that her stories start out incredibly strong only to kind of peter off. I’ve wondered to myself if this is somewhat intentional on her part, as it matches the heightened expectations of the characters who are, quite often, left with a sense of disappointment. What they were waiting for was far from what was expected; it’s not that it was something terrible instead but rather something almost worse: it was simply nothing (or no one) worth the time spent in expectation.
I felt quite similar to this story, only here it was the middle that sagged as we stepped out of the realm of heightened expectation and into the cozy and familiar, if still uncomfortable. I have taken a bit longer to mull it over and reread it, and, though I still don’t feel quite confident the middle couldn’t be stronger, I just cannot help it: I love Tessa Hadley’s work. I loved this story.
When “Under the Sign of the Moon” begins, we meet an older woman named Greta. She’s on a train heading off to visit her grown daughter Kate in Liverpool. Though she tries to read, she finds herself forced to be polite to a young man who seems to want to chat with her. Indeed, younger though he may well be, he seems quite comfortable with her.
Greta began to guess that he was one of those people who spent their youth involved with an older generation, until they themselves became elderly by association — and didn’t mind it in the least or try to escape.
Everything about his manner and his clothing confirm this to Greta. He’s more comfortable with older people than he is with those his own age. This is fine with Greta. She accepts his sociability. If only she were younger . . .
She would have been quite sure, once, that this man was trying to chat her up — there was a certain persistent, burrowing sweetness in his attention.
When Kate texts to let Greta know she will be late picking her up at the train station, Greta continues to talk to the man. I love the way that Hadley closes their time together and this whole section of the story. Something has happened, and Greta is shocked as she tries to process it in the midst of Kate’s arrival, Kate who gives off an urgent, all-business air.
There was hardly time for Greta to say goodbye to the young man, and they parted as if it were the merest accident that they’d been sitting at the same table. She hadn’t properly looked at him again, once she’d seen Kate. And yet, while she was smiling proudly, watching Kate make her way toward them, he had said something fairly astonishing — so quickly, and with such an air of its being an acceptable and reasonable suggestion, that Greta wasn’t sure at first that she’d hear correctly. Then she didn’t have time to respond before Kate was there, taking charge. He’d said that he would be at the Palm House, in Sefton Park, on Thursday afternoon, at two o’clock. If she wanted, she could meet him there.
Hadley has escorted us here with wonderful story-telling, the kind that not only makes you feel like your there with Greta physically but also there mentally. Plus, there’s the intrigue: what on earth does this young man want with an older woman like Greta?
The middle of the story does not keep up this kind of movement, sadly, though it’s partly because the stuff we go over in the middle does not really intrigue Greta. It’s at this point that we get a sense of Greta’s own past, with Kate’s compulsive father, Ian. Greta is almost sickened by the past. It weighs on her, and she’d like to push it off. Her present isn’t really that much better. She’s currently married to a decent man named Graham (“she never wavered, these days, in her appreciation of his kindness”), and she has some stability, and here she is meeting with her daughter with some obvious distance. She’s slipped into what she considers to be the end of her life, and she’s not expecting anything new to show up — then along comes this young man. We really want to get back to what’s going to happen with that young man. Not because we like him — we shouldn’t — but because for us, and, importantly, for Greta, this is where the surprise is coming. This is what will upset the complacent rhythm.
And, almost on accident, we get there, and it’s genuinely upsetting.