“Cecilia Awakened”
by Tessa Hadley
from the September 18, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Now that William Trevor is gone and Alice Munro is retired, Hadley is probably my favorite short story writer. Her work is wise and beautifully rendered.

Hadley focuses on the lives of girls and women, particularly of girls becoming women, and the title “Cecilia Awakened” suggests we’ll be getting more of this in this story. The first paragraph confirms this:

Cecilia awakened from her childhood while she was on holiday in Italy, the summer she turned fifteen. It was not a sexual awakening, or not exactly — rather, an intellectual or imaginative one. Until that summer, the odd child she was had seemed to fit in perfectly with the oddity of her rather elderly parents. Her father, Ken, worked at a university library, and her mother, Angela, wrote historical novels, and when they came late to marriage — and then to childbearing and child rearing — they saw no reason to change the entrenched pattern of their lives, or to become more like ordinary people. No one who knew them could quite imagine afterward how they had managed nappies and dummies and spooning in baby food; they themselves couldn’t really remember how they had managed it. A squalling baby must have been an eruption of anarchy in lives that were otherwise characterized by restraint and irony.

I’m really looking forward to this one! I hope you all enjoy it too. Please let us know in the comments below.

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By |2018-09-11T15:56:33+00:00September 11th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tessa Hadley|Tags: |25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. William September 12, 2018 at 10:35 pm

    Are there no comments on this story? I have to say, that’s what it deserves. Not bad, not good. Hadley’s typical bland amorphous rambling. I know I’ll be slammed for male insensitivity to female feelings and issues. But I don’t see it. The only notable aspect is that neat switch from the girl’s to the mother’s pov in the last section.

  2. Trevor Berrett September 13, 2018 at 12:10 am

    I really liked it, myself! Her awakening to the insignificance of herself and her parents and their world presented a new perspective to me, though it felt sadly familiar.

  3. David September 13, 2018 at 7:40 am

    I wanted to wait until Trevor had a chance to comment before I made my comment, but William’s description of “bland amorphous rambling” sounds like the perfect description of how I saw it. In fact, without the author interview I think I would have really had no idea what the story was supposed to be about. It is, in the end, so slight, so insignificant, and so very very common a sort of experience as to be entirely insubstantial. It felt more like something a teenager would write thinking she was the first person ever to feel this way and then, a few years later, be incredibly embarrassed to find was little more than a universal cliche. I have not thought very highly of other work by Hadley, but I have always previously found some value in her stories. This one I want to call a hot mess, but really it’s no more than a lukewarm mess. Very disappointing.

  4. Trevor Berrett September 13, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    Nonsense!

    I suppose we can disagree, as we do sometimes (often?), but I’ve reread it again and just don’t see the weaknesses pointed out above. Hadley’s not rambling, and even if she was it’s not bland.

    I still haven’t read Hadley’s interview, so maybe I’m getting this wrong, but this is an insightful story about a young girl finding out that she is not really part of the world, that her parents are not as authoritative as they appear. It’s also about a mother who sees this coming because she went through it herself, and now she knows she cannot protect her daughter from mainly being a spectator of the world as opposed to a full participant, partially because the mother has no idea how to escort her daughter to another way of being. I mean, just look at how ill equipped Angela is when she first has to help her daughter deal with her period: “Female biology seemed a disenchantment, after the pure thing Cecilia’s childhood had been.”

    And it appears most of what her parents want is to be observers of the world. It’s one reason they prefer to live in the past, where they can sit on the outside. They are deeply uncomfortable in the present “among so many alien others, such hostile crosscurrents, in such oceans of what was crass and wrong.”

    I love how smoothly Hadley shows the effects of this on Cecilia, especially when she realizes that in relation to some of the other girls she was not beautiful:

    “But there had seemed to be something unassailable in her, balanced against her lack and compensating for it. If they were beautiful, at least she was the one who saw it, saw everything. That had set her apart.”

    Now, while on a vacation with her parents, she realizes that being set apart is not necessarily that great. Instead of their superiority, she sees their strangeness. Instead of them possessing the world, she sees they are usurpers, relatively ignorant, with a “puny” interest in art. She sees them as a “type,” and not as wonderful individuals. She realizes this is her as well, and she’s getting a sense of what this means about what’s coming down the pipeline.

    And so does her mom, which is why the last section, devoted entirely to her mother, is so strong. Through years of experience, her mother is a professional observer. She is not ignorant to what her daughter is feeling, which is why she can imagine it so vividly, even if she has no power to do anything else.

  5. Mike Tannhauser September 13, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    A perfectly rendered story on the loss of childhood innocence, The moment of understanding and fear in front of the wairtress, the understanding of Italians loathing of the onslaught of all those tourists. The reader swept up in Cecila’s
    stomach-churning moments of recognition. Will I ever enjoy Italy and Italians quite the same as before? Probably not!

  6. David September 13, 2018 at 7:26 pm

    Trevor, I am glad to have provoked a longer comment from you about this story! I won’t try to persuade you to see it the way I do (if for no other reason than that almost certainly won’t happen), but I’ll just add a couple of comments. The story, in a nutshell, is this: A girl was once very close to her parents and enjoyed doing the same things they did and doing them with them and sharing their way of looking at the world. Then suddenly, as a teenager, she feels alienated from them, realizes she wants something different, feels frustrated and annoyed by them, and wants to get way from them. That’s not only this story, but the experience of 95% of all teenage girls. Did Hadley think she had discovered the “coming-of-age” story? Or did she think she said anything new about the “coming-of-age” experience? This is also why the switch to the mother’s perspective is so very underwhelming. Did the mother not know that all teenagers go through this? Did she need to recall her own youth to understand what was happening? It could not have been more cliche if she had commented with a sigh to her husband, “Our little girl is growing up”.
    .
    Also, you referenced Cecilia’s awareness that she isn’t beautiful. It’s worth mentioning that this, too, is the experience of about 95% of teenage girls, no matter what they actually look like. For her to have this “revelation” is like telling us she used to think boys were icky and gross, but now she wants to be around them a lot. This isn’t news. In fact, in the whole story there is no insight I can see. If the story is well told and that’s enough for some, would they have been happy if the story had been daughter, who is close to her parents and shares interests with them goes with them to Italy on holiday and they all have a good time? I might have actually enjoyed that more.

  7. Trevor September 13, 2018 at 7:59 pm

    No, that won’t change my mind. And it’s not just a matter of taste, I don’t think. I really disagree that this is a story about something 95% of teenage girls experience. It’s not general; the title is the only part that is general to me, and I think that’s deliberate. This is a very particular awakening of a very particular young woman. Also, while most young women (and I don’t know if this is true, but I’ll assume so for argument’s sake) may question their beauty, it’s quite different for a young girl who knows she is not beautiful. She is right, and she knows what this means for her, and she knows, then, that all of the things she’s told herself, with help from her mom (who went through it too), are just platitudes meant to make her feel okay about not fully participating in the world. Indeed, part of the tragedy of this story is that Cecilia is an astute observer of the world (like her mom), and consequently her awakening is hard in a way that is unique.

    I’ve read plenty of coming of age stories for boys and girls, and this is the only one I’ve seen take this approach. It does remind me a bit of Anita Brookner’s stories that usually involve an older woman who is living the life Cecilia has in front of her.

  8. David September 13, 2018 at 8:09 pm

    Trevor, I am not sure how the experience of a person who knows she is not beautiful could be different from that of a person who is certain she is not beautiful, regardless of whether or not it is true. From inside the experience both are subjective certainties and would feel the same to the person experiencing it.
    .
    But as for the idea that this is not a generic coming-of-age, but a very particular one, I don’t see it. What are the elements of this coming-of-age that make it different from any other one? If it’s just the spectator / participant aspect, then I would say that this is just as well trodden ground. The “I don’t just want to be someone who watches other people do things; I want to live my own experiences” is a very familiar life turning point in a lot of stories. But is there more than that going on? I’d love to hear what else you see here.

  9. Roger September 13, 2018 at 9:55 pm

    Hadley’s gift as a stylist is one thing that prevents this from being just another coming of age story. One beautifully rendered sentence follows another throughout.

    Also, one of the striking aspects is that there is just a single line of dialogue uttered, spoken by the monk at San Miniato al Monte. Very few writers can put this much life on the page while sticking to exposition. My already considerable admiration for Hadley has increased after reading this story.

  10. mehbe September 14, 2018 at 9:32 am

    My first impression was that this story was almost too beautifully written. It goes down so easilyy that it almost isn’t noticed. Thanks to Trevor’s defense of it here in the comments for waking me up to the content.

    Now that I’m more alert to it, I particularly enjoyed the way that Hadley used the unwelcome tourist idea to make the point that Cecilia, in her awakening, is suddenly aware of real living people all around, people that she never noticed before, and that her parents seem to acknowledge only in the most superficial manner. I get the feeling this family is in for a bit of a rough ride as Cecilia becomes ever more “woke”.

    Hadley’s author interview about this story seems unusually intelligent and generous. She is less damning of the kind of people the parents in this story represent than I would have guessed, which is nice to know.

  11. William September 14, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    I’m with David on this story — I don’t think it amounts to much. After seeing other people’s comments extolling Hadley’s writing. I was going to post some thoughts about how literate people could react so differently to a story. Then I was going to give examples of two stories that I think are really good CoA tales. One is “Indian Camp”. Since there are Hemingway haters in every reading group, I wanted to provide a less bloody story as well. I picked “Boys and Girls”. I saw that there was a reading of it

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMWBPlYQJnE

    so I listened. It was tremendous — not only the reading (I don’t think I had appreciated before how much a reading can illuminate a story), but also the story itself. It’s so rich, so detailed, so textured, so psychologically true, so well plotted. The girl’s plight is so moving. Next to Munro’s story, Hadley’s pales to insignificance. It’s anemic, thin gruel, a mere sketch of an idea for a story.

    One might say, Well, Munro won a Nobel. We can’t compare Hadley to her. I think that is backward — we need always to hold in our minds instances of what a story can be and comment on new stories in the light of that real ideal. Look up Stephen Spender’s poem, “I Think Continually”.

    Trevor, you need to be especially careful here. If you don’t re-evaluate Hadley’s story in light of Munro’s, Munro’s fell hand may reach across the barriers of time and expunge your name from her fan club.

  12. David September 15, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    Trevor, your comment about Brookner was helpful. When I re-read the story (for the third time!), I told myself to imagine that I was reading the start of a Brookner novel. (I’ve only read A Start In Life so far, but I loved it.) For the first third of the story, before we really get to Cecilia’s awakening, I got a bit of a sense of what I think you mean (and what Roger means by “Hadley’s gift as a stylist”), but at the same time it pales in comparison to Brookner, for me anyway. The analogy that comes to mind here is music, where one person can find a melody remarkably beautiful and another person can find it to be rather ordinary. You and I share an appreciation for Brookner’s melodies, but when it comes to Hadley, I find her music more ordinary. Without the added appeal of the beauty of the prose, what is left really does still strike me as a rather mundane coming-of-age story. In fact, it seems Roger sees it that way as well, but he just liked the writing more than I did.
    .
    You commented on the part where Cecilia realizes that she is not beautiful like some of the other girls, but actually that’s not what happens. We are told that “She had understood before … that she wasn’t beautiful.” The belief that she is not beautiful, then, is not something that comes to her as new in this story. What is new is that while before she felt comfort in the fact that she could see that they were beautiful and she was not, and this now no longer seems much consolation. I have to admit, I don’t really understand why anyone would have felt comfort in the idea that at least she knows she isn’t beautiful, so this part of the story is a bit odd.
    .
    Cecilia’s awakening includes realizing that people she meets have lives that go on when she is not around and that some people might not have as positive opinions of her parents as she had, which she finds very embarrassing. That’s all stuff of pretty much every coming-of-age. The specific difference between being people who observe the world and people who engage in it does mark two ways of interacting with the world, but I don’t see any reason to think that Cecilia has uncovered some horrible flaw in her parents’ characters she never saw before. They seem like perfectly decent people. That only leaves her awakening to be of a personal separation from them, the kind all kids go through.
    .
    Last time I joked that the story could only have been more cliche if the mother had commented with a sigh to her husband, “Our little girl is growing up”. On my last rereading I noticed this sentence: “They would have to get used to this sort of thing now that she was a teen-ager, he said in a tone full of foreboding, trying to hide his disappointment and hurt.” Errr …. yeah.

  13. Zeka September 17, 2018 at 5:36 am

    Hello – new person here. I wasn’t a Tessa Hadley fan before and I agree with the comments on the ordinariness of the tale and how easily her prose goes down, so easily as to make the story itself seem even more inconsequential. But it seemed to me to be a very good rendering of that peculiar shame experienced by teenagers when trying to bridge the gap between their closeted world and new startling observations (the realisation that a church is not simply a tourist spot – certainly an experience that secular people might have in Italy or France or Spain, compared to England).

    As for her sudden awareness of not being beautiful, it seems like that’s not something that one realises *on their own*. The line about it seems to fit into the story’s larger purpose of showing the character’s awareness that she is a ‘type’ of person, someone who participates, an observer, in the way that her family are observers of beauty, but their own lives lack it, in a showy sense.

  14. Zeka September 17, 2018 at 5:39 am

    I also meant to add I loved the switch at the end. After the cruelty of Cecilia’s awakening – and I found it horribly painful to read, as it was so recognisable to me – it was a humane move to switch to the mother’s POV.

  15. Trevor Berrett September 17, 2018 at 5:31 pm

    One might say, Well, Munro won a Nobel. We can’t compare Hadley to her. I think that is backward — we need always to hold in our minds instances of what a story can be and comment on new stories in the light of that real ideal.

    I’d like to hear more about this, William, because I don’t agree. Stories can be wonderful without needing to be Nobel-worthy. Not even Munro wrote Nobel-worthy stories that challenge form and structure every time and maybe not even half the time. Maybe not even a 20% of the time — I’m not abiding by your counsel well, am I! Hopefully Munro doesn’t get too upset at me!

    I think it’s a healthier and less frustrating approach to stories and books to take them as they are and not try to grade them against the best we’ve had. Comparisons have their place, of course, and no I don’t think “Cecilia Awakened” is as good as Lives of Girls and Women, but I’m glad Hadley wasn’t even trying to write the kind of story that Munro was.

  16. Lee Monks September 18, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    I’d add to that by saying that, should Hadley be even conscious of trying to emulate this ‘ideal’ what’s good about her work – and that includes her specific brand of eloquent inquiry – would be lost. A writer can surely only remain true to the limitations and potential of each story, which sets its own parameters the moment the first sentence is written. Whether it’s successful or not shouidnt depend on whether or not it’s as good as a masterwork.

  17. darwin buschman September 19, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    i love the story and the characters and i am especially entranced by tessa hadley herself. I recently listened to her
    read an Updike story on a podcast and then discuss the story at length with Deborah Treisman and learned so much
    about literature and writing in the process. Tessa went on and on at length over many aspects of the story revealing
    as much about her own style and inclinations as those of Updike and her enthusiasm and wholesome sort of
    presentation were so endearing.

  18. antondarby September 20, 2018 at 11:13 am

    I read a book by the author a couple of weeks ago (I bought the book thinking the stories were by another writer a sample of whose stories I downloaded from Itunes and I cannot find her name anymore) and I quite liked most of them but I don’t think she matches up to Trevor or Munro at all.

    Anton

  19. Arleen September 23, 2018 at 4:52 pm

    I enjoyed this story a great deal, and unlike many commenters here find it very rich. Cecilia awakens to so many things. She certainly feels different about herself, but also about young people she is observing, about her parents, about other travellers, about various people’s attitudes and responses.

    Cecilia is so impressed by the worldliness and self-confidence of the young Italian women around her that she begins to question her own values. It seems as if she sees how petty and cheap her parents are for the first time,
    probably because they are in a foreign setting. Her parents behave badly as tourists, guests in another country, by pretending not to understand the language and intruding on a religious service. She is so embarrassed by them she leaves them.

    She notices for the first time how worn and threadbare her mother’s clothes are, and observes her dad going about the church reading at them from a guidebook. Her mother’s inane comment about the monk drowning in a “fishing hole” pool of water clinches the fact that these self-important folks are not learning much from their travels.

    Hadley is certainly telling us about Cecilia and her parent’s trip to Italy, but she also uses this as a backdrop for social commentary. She lampoons many different approaches to travel, and some traveller stereotypes. The British are often satirized for their attitudes when they travel, and they love to make fun of foreigners visiting their country.
    Cecilia returns home after her trip awakened to a new world.

  20. William September 26, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    Trevor —

    “Stories can be wonderful without needing to be Nobel-worthy.”

    Not sure I agree with this. I would rather say that stories can be OK without being Nobel-worthy. You argue that perhaps only 20% of Munro’s stories are at her highest level. Then I would say that only those 20% are “wonderful”.

    Lee —

    “A writer can surely only remain true to the limitations and potential of each story, which sets its own parameters the moment the first sentence is written.”

    That puts you in the mystical “story writes itself” camp, which some commenters on this site have strongly questioned. I would change this to “A writer can surely only remain true to the limitations and potential of her talent.” That describes Hadley exactly.

    Again, I think we should always hold writing to the highest standard, to the best writing that we know. That will prevent us from overpraising mediocre writing. I just finished “Manhattan Beach”. Hadley only wishes she could write that well. I wish Egan would write some more short stories.

  21. Ken September 27, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    I would agree with Trevor, but only on a second reading. I didn’t much like this story on first reading, partly as the first page really contains a ton of information and background which I’d thought would be more suitable to start a novel, not a 5-page story. I also found it more theoretical than dramatic. On second reading, which I felt compelled to do by the above discussion, I not only was more impressed with Hadley’s style–the marvelous passage about realizing that actual bodily, sensual content of Carvaggio and not just swooning at his form and technique–than on first read and it started to come alive as more than just an intellectual exercise about the developing consciousness of an intelligent person. I felt this story took a teenager’s intellectual awakening seriously. This is rare enough in a story about a teenaged boy, but particularly unusual as so many stories about teenaged girls seem to focus on love and sex. Here we observe the alienations that many feel. Mairjuana smoking is a good way to bring out some of this feeling of one’s absurdity and I started wondering what Cecelia’s first drug experiences (if she has them and yes I know she’s fictional) might be like.

  22. Trevor Berrett September 27, 2018 at 11:12 pm

    William, I simply disagree, and I don’t think you’re reading Lee correctly. You’ve distorted his legitimate comment about a writer creating a world and having a vision and staying faithful to it. This is not the same thing as a writer saying they are just a medium, serving unseen forces.

  23. Larry Bone October 9, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    I think Tessa Hadley has written “Cecilia Awakened” to be taken either as a very usual regular daughter coming of age type of story or a cautionary tale about two people who probably would have remained single if biology hadn’t intervened at the last possible moment.

    It is sort of gently horrific as in “No one who knew them could quite imagine afterward how they had managed.” The contrast on this is the grandmother “who was elegant and drank and had lovers.” Father worked at a university library, Mother was a feminist, a modestly successful historical novelist who was able to snag her nerd/dude even though not caring how she dresses.

    American parents are bad enough. British parents are totally incomprehensible like a Monty Python skit on how rabbits populate. Could you imagine Ken and Angela on Facebook or meeting on Facebook?

    I sort of take this as a surreal horror story disguised as an ordinary occurance. I think the most telling parts of this story are the unspokens. Lets be blunt, Ken is not a manly man, a mousy Socialist working at a library. Withdrawn, lonely, boring. Probably bottom of the barrel 56th pick on the cricket draft.

    And Angela, a feminist, whose mother noticed “her awkward daughter had succeeded in hooking a man after all.” Here are a horribly mismatched couple making a “biological” go of it.

    The ordinariness of this is that “biology had produced Cecelia”. No mention of sex, attraction, testosterone or estrogen here, just biology. Kind of the ironic and understatement cloaked in familiarty? Am I missing something here? I shudder to imagine how Cecelia was conceived.

    The wonder of most children is that Mom is Mom and Dad is Dad and when they are young, they instinctively understand what is good about Mom and Dad and don’t necessarily find falt. And often they adopt the strengths of both parents as part of their preliminary pre-puberty identity not all to the bad and sometimes their awakening is not really physical or sexual, it is some sort of higher awareness of some of the truths of life as they relate to their parents.

    And the whole beautifulness thing as though being beautiful will get you all of what not being beautiful won’t get you or being a manly enough man will get a man everything he desires from that beautiful woman he fancies. Go ahead dude, objectify, objectify.

    I think of Virginia Woolf. To become so acutely aware of the strengths of one’s mother and the inadequacies of one’s father. I think when Cecelia returns to the hotel alone and “She would flop down on the bed — their bed–not hers — and feel herself seeping gradually back into her own shape, belonging only to herself.” And I think of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”

    And as adults, behaving as ordinary adults, one could ask, “What difference does it make?” And to me, the strength of Virginia Woolf is that she chronicles this hyper-sensitive awareness of her parents total inadequacy for one another within the modernism of “To The Lighthouse.”

    One could say that was not what Tessa Hadley was writing about but how could one say it wasn’t? Maybe the flaw of ordinariness is that one should never too seriously consider what can occur out of it. I think Hadley is painting a true picture of the world she sees but I think her restraint should not be mistaken for ordinariness. She is not telling the truth through a literary megaphone rather she is relying on the carefullness of the details. You see what she refers to or you might miss it entirely because its not what you expect. Maybe she overbalances or maybe not if you are looking in the right direction.

    I especially like the ending, “such a harmless little pond.” And I think of Virginia Woolf drowning herself in a “harmless little pond.”

    Now I know someone will probably ask, “And just which short story were you talking about?”

  24. Anton October 10, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Thank you Larry. That was really a joy to read, and now the inevitable “And just which short story were you talking about”

  25. Larry Bone October 10, 2018 at 1:33 pm

    Thank you Anton. Either I am presenting a viewpoint from which to view or understand “Cecelia Awakened” or I am presenting a viewpoint most readers just don’t think really appears at all in that short story so which story am I talking about? That is the call they make after reading the story. I like the reader reactions to the New Yorker short stories because for the most part I read honest reactions sometimes with a short excerpt from what it was in the story that made them feel that way about it. Every reader reaction is a result of his or her experience with life, with other short stories and other people and what and who he or she is most interested in or what he or she likes, dislikes or is indiffererent concerning. So the reader makes their choice. I have my take on what happens. They have theirs. Maybe I read too much into a few random details. Maybe they see the ease of the story as so smooth as to lack focus or a central or controlling premise that is being reached or not by the end of the story. So the reader makes a ruling in their head and moves on to the next New Yorker short story. The great strength of this blog is there are no preconceived ideas about anything unless a reader thinks along a certain line of discussion but will usually explain how they arrived at that conclusion.

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