Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Tessa Hadley’s “Experience” was originally published in the January 21, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Though not nearly as high as the excitement I felt last week when we got a new story from William Trevor, I do get excited every time I see a new story from Tessa Hadley. As far as her own work, for me this one probably sits somewhere in the middle; as far as New Yorker stories go, I’d put this one in the upper tier. It was a very good short story.
Our narrator, Laura, is twenty-eight and is recently divorced her husband of six years. She gets in touch with Hana, “a friend of a friend,” because Hana was going to Los Angeles and needed someone to watch her three-story brick townhouse in London, rent free.
For me, the most interesting part of the story was the beginning, when Laura is trying to take the measure of Hana. Hana is in her forties, and the narrator says “she made me feel inexperienced, although I had been married for six years.” Laura finds Hana, who lives alone in an expensive townhome, intimidating. Even when Hana has left, Laura found herself “more powerfully impressed by her than I had been when she was present.” This gives Larau solace: “I told myself that this house was a good place for me, temporarily: this nowhere where I was nobody.”
Laura is unmotivated; she needs a job, but she doesn’t want to go look for one just yet. Instead, she wanders London and explores the townhouse. With so much of her life on display (she doesn’t even have curtains on her windows), it is surprising that Hana has locked one of the attic doors. Laura feels ashamed looking back, but at the time she had to dig under, she had to know Hana’s secrets. She finds the key, opens the door, and finds all of the things Hana locked away, including a diary. In the diary, Laura reads about Hana’s affair with Julian, a married man. This powerful woman has documented their violent, terrifying, and to Laura thrilling sex life: “He hurts me and frightens me, but it’s the best s*x ever.”
Laura read the whole thing and then sits there thinking, “I’ve never lived.”
Viewed coldly from outside, how silly Hana’s affair was and how demeaning, with its hysteria and its banal props. But who wanted to view things coldly from the outside?
All of this is in the first couple of pages of the story. While the story does not disappoint, I don’t think it maintains that level of intrigue and darkness. We don’t even necessarily feel threatened when the old lover shows up. But perhaps that’s the point. Laura yearns for some danger, some life; she’s literally been wasting away over the past few months, stunted in her quest.
Perhaps another reason I was a bit less engaged in the final part of the story is because it felt a bit typical. We know, of course, that the love is going to arrive and that Laura will have to confront him. To make things a bit more on the nose, after a relatively eventless confrontation, Laura sits down to watch Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem, which for me suddenly became the only way I could see this story, the lover here being kind of like Terence Stamp’s character in that film. Able to shake up the lives of the wealthy, he also somehow manages to liberate the poor. Perhaps the inclusion of that film’s title led me to a restrictive interpretation of “Experience,” but I’m happy to say I enjoyed it enough for that alone to keep looking for more.
Tessa Hadley’s “Experience” is an entertainment, and I enjoyed it. Recently divorced Laura takes “friend of a friend” Hanna up on her offer to house-sit. Laura tells herself “that this house was a good place for me, temporarily: this nowhere where I was nobody.” As in a fairy tale, she seems to be temporarily asleep.
Hana is perhaps in her forties, very bold in her manner, beauty and wealth, and Laura enjoys looking into every corner of the three story town house, and as in a fairy tale, she comes upon not only a locked attic door but also upon the long iron key that unlocks it. When she finds a diary and reads the adventures within, she thinks, “I’ve never lived.”
In “Experience,” Hadley riffs on the wildly popular and improbable S&M romance, Fifty Shades of Grey. This series proposes that the route to feminine knowledge, passion, and power is for an initially powerless woman to submit, over and over, to violent sex with a very wealthy man.
The reverse of Fifty Shades of Grey is what Laura discovers in Hana’s diary: it is the woman who is wealthy and powerful, and it is the powerful woman who finds herself intoxicated to be the submissive in a violent sexual relationship. What intoxicates her is losing her power. Laura wonders about the “experience” that Hana possesses, and the reader wonders about the divorce and poor Laura’s inexperience.
Just as if Laura has gotten herself involved in a very up-to-the-minute Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, Hana’s lover shows up at the door, and Laura finds herself similarly intoxicated with the possibilities he presents. Is he the experience she needs? What is wonderful is that while Laura yearns for “experience,” what the lover presents her with is wonderful kindness, and it is this kindness, not brutality, that appears to wake this sleeping beauty to her own power.
Fifty Shades of Grey has exerted a powerful hold on the feminine imagination; book clubs discuss it, 90-year-old great grandmothers ask their granddaughters for a copy. Here, Hadley, tongue in cheek, has her say as well.