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.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

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.

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By | 2014-03-25T16:08:22+00:00 March 17th, 2014|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tessa Hadley|14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Roger March 27, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    I loved this one, too. That ending is upsetting, as you say, Trevor; it is disturbing, and powerfully so – haunting, really. Greta has gone on a journey in several respects: the train ride to visit her daughter, the trip to town to meet the odd young man, and the overall journey of her life. In each instance the destination is, as you say, disappointing. It’s a story in the absurdist tradition, where the destination turns out either to be meaningless or to mock the very notion of meaning. The young man is no suitor, nor is he easily dismissed as nothing more than a stalker – he’s troubled, and instead of representing some new turn in Greta’s life, as she seems to hope or anticipate, he turns out to be someone whom she must push away, putting herself back in the position she already was in, a position she never left but only believed she might leave.

    Ian’s death in the bicycle accident made me think of Camus’s death in a car crash. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Hadley was aiming for that effect.

  2. Betsy March 30, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    I am interested in Greta’s illness. She has been sick for over a year, and her grown daughter comments on how Greta is “horribly thin”. The “scrawny” plants in the story echo Greta’s diminished self. Greta cannot bear to be “waylaid by awareness of her body or by fear or disgust”. This is very strong language. Hadley is not clear about the illness – it sounds like cancer and a hysterectomy, but neither the illness nor the treatment is made specific. The diagnosis appears not to be fatal, but Greta’s own point of view may well be fatal.

    Greta says that the illness has barred her “definitively from the world of sexual attraction”, even though she has read online about women with this illness who have happily resumed their sex lives. Greta declares, “That part of her life was over.”

    This is an interesting problem. The man that she meets on the train (the slightly off, half her age, man in the white macintosh) is interesting. He represents a variety of takes on what is wrong with Greta, and he is not a wrong turn in the story at all. He is compelling.

    But the story, as Trevor hints, does not hang together. There are fascinating riffs on Liverpudleian railway lore, the fall of the Roman empire, and the nature of Greta’s daughter, her son-in-law, and their marriage. There is also a terrifying riff on Greta’s first husband, back in the day when Greta was a hippie.

    Therein lies the story’s first mis-step. Hadley has constructed a tale of a woman who “would never break out of the bounds of her reasonable self”, but at the same time we are expected to believe that she lived in a squat with a bunch of hippies when she was in her twenties. Something is missing here.

    We are also asked to believe that Greta’s first husband slept with another woman on their wedding night. That doesn’t really square with a woman who lives by the rules of a “reasonable self”. I know that we are all attracted to our opposites. I’m just saying there are a lot of loose ends in this story. Greta takes this man back afterwards. This makes almost no sense to me. This situation would have made a reasonable woman hightail it back to safety.

    More important, there is the lame duck, Greta’s husband, who is purportedly a decent guy to whom she has been married thirty years. It would seem to me that a guy whose wife has suddenly given up seeing herself as a sexual being would be an important force in the story. For instance, after a year of waiting for her to come to, the husband might start seeing the neighbor next door. Or they might have an argument. Or he might try to nudge her out of this. Or he might announce that he was leaving her. Something! But not – he’s Greta’s “defender” and is perfectly happy being shelved for a year and also the foreseeable future. (Remember Roger Angell’s great piece in the New Yorker a week or two back? He’s ninety and he says a man of any age needs all the perks of marriage and companionship. Somehow,this story reads as if Hadley thinks Greta’s husband will not miss their former life at all.)

    Her husband’s well-being never occurs to Greta. That should be the center of the story. Or the faltering of their marriage should be. Or his running off should be. Husbands suffer when their wives are sick. It’s an important part of the tale – how he’s doing and how the marriage is doing and what Greta thinks of all this. Just to leave him back at the house doing his own cooking and the housework with no nookie and no care about it – well, this is not very realistic.

    This doesn’t work for me at all as a story. It would work if the husband had been left out. Him being present, however, doesn’t work at all in the story’s present form.

    Which brings me to wondering about the story’s form. There is a similarity to Alice Munro in this story – the woman traveling on the train, the daughter, the distance between the daughter and the mother, the interest in the geological rock beside the train, the sudden story of the woman’s younger self and her first marriage, the attempt to get a real sense of how people change, and the sudden violent confrontation that ends the story. The man in the white macintosh is peculiar, and he wouldn’t be out of place in a Munro story. The layers, the complexity, the history – this all reminds me of Munro.

    The problem is, I think Munro would have dealt with the husband and still had the man in the white macintosh.

    What we have in this story is a form that replicates the Munro form, but the psychology that holds Munro’s stories together is missing, and the accountability. Munro lets no one off the hook.

    It is unfair to compare a writer to Munro. I do not do it lightly. Let’s say I decided Denis Johnson’s recent story (“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”) didn’t do justice to the Munro form. That would be ridiculous. Johnson is an original. He is pursuing a different form, a different purpose, and a different psychology.

    In Hadley’s case, however, I catch the model of the master. This is very dangerous territory. I see, with this example, why artists often want to “make it new”. When one writer has made a particular form her own, that’s dangerous territory for other writers.

    Curiously, Hadley speaks at length in her Page-Turner interview regarding what the story means, as if she also senses there is something missing in the story.

    Trevor, I get, however, why you like Hadley. I also found all the sections of the story interesting. I found the man in the white macintosh riveting. I just can’t make all the layers into one coherent tale.

  3. Ken April 1, 2014 at 5:58 am

    I quite liked this story but it’s imperfect. I could have lived without the whole flashback and the mention of Ian. This doesn’t really add that much to the whole and seems to be a bit cumbersome. In contrast, the entire present day section is wonderful. The opening paragraphs are truly beautiful stylistically and full of interesting imagery. The conversation with the young man is intriguing and puzzling. The end is also strong and disturbing. I would agree with Betsy that Graham gets rather short shrift. If he was her only husband/partner then it’d be perhaps less of a problem. We could assume they’d had a long, pleasant marriage and that her mind simply was not on him during the journey, but since he’s come along after Ian, whose tragic death seems a bit much, and seems a father figure to Kate, it’s odd he’s dispatched with. I also saw the echoes of Munro. Not as good, yet I still loved certain things here. The bits about silent observation of life–watching her daughter and husband or the silence in the train as everyone stands while it stops in a tunnel–are sublime.

  4. Paul April 2, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    I lack the deep knowledge or enthusiasm for Munro that Betsy has, but agree that the form of this story is flawed. I almost think it amounts to the author not cutting enough. Less would be more. Despite her remarks in the NY interview, I don’t find that material about the railway and sandstone to have contributed to the point of the story enough to warrant the space given it, both at the beginning and in her talk with Boyd. Similarly, the value of the backstory about Kate’s father and Greta’s current husband could have been accomplished in just a few sentences, but instead, as several of you have written, diverts us from what is otherwise a compelling tale about Greta and the young man (eerie, as Hadley suggests in the interview). If this were a section of a novel (I recall one or more chapters of Clever Girl appearing in the NY prior to book publication), then some of this excess would be forgiven, but as a short story, I think it would be much improved, in fact a very strong story, with about a third snipped away. Even so, there is brilliant writing, great characters, and a wonderfully sensitive and open-ended depiction of Greta and yes, of the troubled Mitchell.

  5. lotusgreen December 30, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    Do people still read these comments here, many months later?

    I was intrigued as well by this story, including or maybe even especially by the sections some of you didn’t like. To me this is a story of male/female relations; Greta’s, Kate’s, even Mitchell’s. That Kate has replicated her mother’s supplication to Ian (and to some extent to Graham) is very telling; Kate can’t face her mother, clearly having no idea how much they have in common.

    Despite herself, Greta seems to have developed discenrment. How she abandoned herself in the early days with Ian; was she even angry about their wedding night? I’d have likely murdered him. No, wait. Not back them; I’ve developed discernment as well.

    Interestingly, Greta thinks she’s lost herself in losing her sexuality, but I think she was lost, and now she’s found. After a very heady youth, either I have abandoned sexuality or it has abandoned me — whatever — I have freed myself entirely from the struggle to remain sexually attractive. I for example shaved my head — not in any way for that reason, but it inadvertently freed me from “Is my hair okay?” And in this state, I too am set free.

    When her gaze is turned from the mirror, she begins to see. In these past months, her mind would quite often submerge like this in her surroundings. This is all there is, she’d think—being alive, just here, right now. It wasn’t a reductive or depressing insight; it was almost a form of happiness, the kind of apprehension religious people strove for.

    The saddest moment, and the truest, is the unmet expectation at the train station. She anticipated with her whole body the instant when she would see Kate and they would be enfolded together; looking keenly around, she seemed to see her daughter already stepping forward—handsome, tall, spirited—out of the crowd. They weren’t the kind of mother and daughter who were always cuddling and touching, but surely they would embrace now, after everything that had happened.She anticipated with her whole body the instant when she would see Kate and they would be enfolded together; looking keenly around, she seemed to see her daughter already stepping forward—handsome, tall, spirited—out of the crowd. They weren’t the kind of mother and daughter who were always cuddling and touching, but surely they would embrace now, after everything that had happened. (emphasis mine)

    Are we all seeking that “enfolded together” feeling, not just from the opposite sex but friends and family as well? Aren’t women taught that sexual attractiveness is their main guarantee to getting it? Aren’t they usually wrong?

    And interestingly, Greta, once blind, now sees: this stranger has literally enfolded himself into her, and she will have none of it. And she tells him so. This is what she has gained: she can see and evaluate with great accuracy who is doing what to whom and why. Only now she can stop it.

    The final flicker of unreasonable hope comes at the end; and she extinguishes it.

    Note: If she has had a hysterectomy the excavation of the tunnel stuff probably has great significance, but I’m not up to it!

  6. Betsy December 30, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Lily – that’s a great quote you pulled from this story – where Greta is waiting for Kate at the train station and Kate doesn’t appear, To me that one thing works and rings true. And your proposal that Greta is finally at the place where she can see what’s what may be exactly what Hadley was aiming at.

    So glad to see someone enjoying this one. It was just not my cup of tea. I loved “Valentine” and “Experience”.

  7. lotusgreen December 31, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Thanks so much, Betsy. Hadley would either agree or laugh. I’ll look forward to reading those two stories in particular.

    One of my local libraries has a place where patrons can leave old magazines (from about the last year) for other patrons. As I’d already long recycled my copies that I’d received in the mail I was pleased to find much of the last year’s copies with stories I either hadn’t read or hadn’t Read, so I’ve brought a lot of them back here again.

    Oh, and by the way, since one cannot edit nor delete one’s posts here I’ve learned to reread many times before posting; clearly, that’s not perfectly effective.

    Lily

  8. Betsy December 31, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    Hi, Lily.

    I find your use of the paper magazine endearing and also familiar. Be sure to catch “Kattekoppen” by Will Mackin. I’m also partial to Donald Antrim, T.C. Boyle, Robert Coover, Jeffrey Eugenides, Steven Millhauser (A voice in the night), Haruki Murakami, Antonya Nelson, William Trevor, Thomas McGuane (as you know) – and so many more we’ve encountered just recently.

    When I write on Mondays, I have to print out the story (except when I run out of toner as I did last Monday). But nothing matches working with the magazine itself. For one thing, your ball point pen just sliiiiiiiides over that slick surface!

    But proofreading!

    Sometimes when editing the front end of a sentence, I neglect to match the back end to the new front end. Very embarrassing.

    The initial posts, I write on a word document, and that helps. For one thing, some time elapses over the course of the creation of the post, and I have had time to process. Also – the time lapse requires I re-read it. When I am being really diligent, I print out the word-doc post and read it on paper. Being careful with final surface of a piece is the hardest part.

    When I used to use this “Leave a Reply” space to submit a long post, I would do these first on a word document, too.
    That way, I also have personal record

    But am I doing this quick post on a word document? Noooo, even though this is not brief.

    In contrast, Trevor is so economical with language.

    Well, anyway – glad to hear about you finding all those original magazines. Looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

  9. lotusgreen January 1, 2015 at 1:26 am

    Happy New Year, sweet Betsy. Isn’t that a kind of flower?

    More later on.

  10. lotusgreen January 1, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    Rarely is our subconscious so clearly laughing at us as in dreams; just two days after writing the review above, last night I had a dream where people were saying to me that my hair looked better than it ever had before in my whole life! (I have no idea what it looked like, but I believe that it, like that of a number of other people in the dream, was what I like to think of as Pre-Raphaelite red.)

    Anyway… ballpoint pen??! You mean you actually take notes! Isn’t that cheating? But seriously, please tell me that that only happens the second read, not the first. It would seem one would need at least one read where one absolutely abandons oneself to the story. You can’t do that with a pen at the ready.

    Regarding paper, though, Betsy, for one thing, I can take a paper magazine into the tub with me at the end of these cold days. Secondly, I don’t trust that I’m getting a true reading if I read it online. The lighting is all different… or something. But fortunately it now is all online so I do have access to the stories that never show up in free library copies.

    And regarding the tendencies of forgetting to close code, or including the second half of a paragraph twice, or whatever else I might do, may I apply now for indulgences, you know, ahead of time? Though I do sometimes write these in a separate file, I think most of the time I write while here. In fact I think the only time I’ll open a Word document or whatever is when I need to take a long break for some reason or need to think about what I’m saying more and I’m afraid the beginning of the comment could somehow be lost.

  11. lotusgreen January 1, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    P.S. Regarding the list of authors you provided — I know that of those mentioned, there are some I pretty much always like, others I pretty much always dislike, some that could go either way for me, and some I’ve never read. I think that about covers it. But I’ll keep going with as minimal amount of prejudice as I can manage.

  12. lotusgreen January 14, 2015 at 4:55 pm

    Betsy — I fear I offended your reading smarts….

  13. Betsy January 14, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    Hi Lily – I have been out of touch! First of all – so sorry I never answered this. It’s been two weeks! No – not offended at all. Just disorganized.

    The thing I love about stories (unlike novels) is that when they are good, they are near poetry: ambiguous, unfinished, mysterious, kaleidoscopic. The meaning in a novel is spelled out. Multiple takes are not what happens when several people read a novel. When several people read a novel, they just like different sections better. But with a short story – there are a lot of loose ends. The reader is much more part of making up the meaning. What I mean is, the meaning shimmers – and thus different people can legitimately take a short story different ways. But I do admit I always fall for my own take. Sometimes I find it drastically difficult to absorb what other people think. Sometimes, if I have spent a lot of time (in a trance) on the story, I find it difficult to revisit.

    You remark about the Tessa Hadley story –
    “Are we all seeking that “enfolded together” feeling, not just from the opposite sex but friends and family as well? ”

    So true, Lily, so true!

    That whole scene on the train/at the train station: I found it hard enough to read the first time, let alone think about it, let alone revisit it!

    You asked: “Do people still read these comments … many months later?” Yes, I usually do. and actually, I think other people do, too. You can see on top posts and pages that they do.

    But this is what happened to me. This reply got lost in the post-Christmas shuffle – the period where I slowly recover my wits and my organization, buy a calendar, retrieve those bits of paper with appointments for the new year, finish off the last of the Christmas Trifle, consider how I am going to answer the Christmas cards….a call? a new year’s letter? or (!) a visit (!)! (maybe this is the year I visit Washington and see Cinda, who I knew not only at Radcliffe, but also St Margaret’s and before that – the Swimming Club at Quassapaug. And if we did that – went to Washington – we could also see Bill from Tokyo). You get my drift? In the deep mid-winter, I fall into a snowbank.

    But yes – that Hadley story is hard for me to think about.

    There is an Alice Munro story where the older woman remarks on how distant her grown daughter feels from her – how the gulf is nearly unbridgeable. I find that unsettling. Of course it’s true. I just don’t want it to be true. For instance, I just spent an overnight at my daughter’s. This is a cast of thousands – the kids, the nanny, the kids’ friends, the nanny’s friends, my daughter’s friends, my husband, a son-in-law, his friends, the neighbors, the music therapist, Milo’s teacher at school…

    This is all very lively and alive – but it is not the past come back to life. It is new life, and ride that white water or die!

    Whoever meets you at the station – it’s not the daughter of your dreams. It’s someone entirely new. When I got up this morning, my daughter had made oatmeal with figs and cranberries! What in the world ever prepares you for that! And – turns out – twas delicious. Oatmeal – oatmeal I was expecting! But figs and cranberries – who knew?

    So that’s where I’ve been. So sorry I found it soooo hard to think one more time about Tessa Hadley’s Greta!

    So glad you found us – please don’t give up on us – I love the fresh-take you bring to it all. The honesty! Hardly anyone is ever honest. What a gift.

    (Well – and isn’t what we love the conversation – the distinctly individual takes? the one lyric, the other cynical, the third rational, the next historical, another cultural, another feminist, another NOT feminist, another just plain puzzled?)

    But to return to the HAdley story. You quote her: “When her gaze is turned from the mirror, she begins to see. In these past months, her mind would quite often submerge like this in her surroundings. This is all there is, she’d think—being alive, just here, right now. It wasn’t a reductive or depressing insight; it was almost a form of happiness, the kind of apprehension religious people strove for.”

    Being alive, just here, right now…a form of happiness…

  14. lotusgreen January 14, 2015 at 11:15 pm

    Yes, of course, and thanks. I have no children, so though I do identify with the narrator as Hadley certainly intended, I feel no sense of peril at the interactions. It does seem as though my reaction is able to be the inverse of yours, yours but inside-out.

    To tell you the truth, your holidays sound like they were a very happy fuzzy buzz, one that would no doubt kill me, or at least take me the rest of the following year to recover. Such different lives we live. And yet we sometimes seem to be able to take a very similar thing from a story.

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