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 “Valentine” was originally published in the April 8, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
As a fan of Tessa Hadley, I’m excited that she is the first author to have two stories published in The New Yorker in 2013. And, as it turns out, “Valentine” is an excerpt from an upcoming novel, a novel that also includes two past New Yorker stories: “Honor” and “Clever Girl.” I’m usually not of a fan of the excerpts The New Yorker publishes because naturally they’re often undeveloped and incomplete. However, these three stories are discreet wholes, suggesting to me that the novel will be a series of short stories revolving around Stella, a child in the early 1960s in “Honor,” an almost adolescent in the late 1960s/early 1970s in “Clever Girl,” and an adolescent navigating the 1970s in “Valentine.”
Right off the bat we meet a familiar character. Stella and Madeline, whom she met in “Clever Girl,” are waiting for the bus to take them to school. It’s June in the early 1970s, and they are fifteen years old. They feel invigorated by the season and their bodies are awakening to the possibilities of physical touch:
A breeze, stirring the dust in the gutter, tickles up around our thighs, floats our dresses — we can hardly bear it.
Stella hates going home. The conflict with her step-father (Nor in “Clever Girl,” Gerry here) is still going on, and she considers home a “cramped circle of old loves.” She wants new love and doesn’t want to go back:
I can’t go back — or, rather, I do go back, dutifully, every evening after school, and do my homework at the same table in the same stale olive-green dining room, and still get the best marks in the class for everything, nearly everything.
She just waiting for her new life to begin. And out of the blue, Valentine arrives. He’s sixteen and perfect, they think. On the bus no boys read, but Valentine is reading Beckett’s Endgame. Stella immediately wonders if she’ll be able to find a copy of Endgame in the library. Val transforms her and all of her surroundings: “The familiar solidity of the house and its furniture melted away around Val; after he’d left, I couldn’t believe I really lived there.”
It’s the transformation that occurs and the way Hadley takes us through it that is so remarkable. Somehow Stella and Val become “like a matching pair: skinny and striking.” Naturally, Stella’s mother and step-father do not approve. Not that anything was happening that they could be truly upset about; though Stella feels that Val has an urgent desire, nothing else was going on: “I loved him because he was my other half, my twin, inaccessible to me.”
We don’t get much from Val’s perspective, but we can suspect. The Stella who is narrating this story from an older perspective gives us some clues, and when a bottle of milk shatters a window we know what’s been going on even if Hadley never tells us. But while Stella and Valentine will never be, Valentine doesn’t leave without leaving Stella a kind of Valentine.
At the ending of the story (which references the ending of “Clever Girl”), we are taken back to the beginning, when Stella doesn’t want to go home, can’t go home, but does, dutifully, every day. Things have changed now. After what Stella calls a “defeat,” Stella wonders what she can do:
I thought I could still go back, defeated, to my old life. Back home and back to school, and pick up where I’d left off, and be a clever girl again, and get to university. Even if I could never ever again, in my whole life, be happy.
Now, though she wants to return, she realizes she can’t. Something has happened that makes that completely impossible. Well, we don’t need to read the novel to find out what’s going on, but I for one am anxious to follow Stella through the next stages of her life.
“Valentine,” by Tessa Hadley, is terrific. Stella begins her story in a heightened present tense:
It’s June, and summer is thick everywhere, a sleepy, viscous, sensuous emanation; hot blasts of air, opaque with pollen from the overgrown suburban gardens, are ripe with smells from bins and dog mess.
Stella then makes clear that she’s t talking about the time in the seventies when she was fifteen and fell in love with Valentine:
What I’d felt at my first sight of him that summer morning was more than ordinary love: something like recognition. When I read later in Plato about whole souls divided at birth into two halves, which move around in the world forever afterward mourning each other and longing for their lost completeness, I thought I was reading about myself and Valentine.
There is a magical rightness to this description; I think many a reader will remember teenage love with a similar jolt of recognition and yearning. Hadley leads the reader into Stella’s adolescent passion in such a way that the reader also falls in love with Valentine’s “magnetic, commanding” presence, but simultaneously watches each of Stella’s miscalculations with apprehension.
Valentine’s gorgeous physical self and his glittering mind transform Stella: the girl who was once what her best friend called “too intense” was now half of a soulful, stylish couple. The girl who was once “solid” melted away until she was a skinny and languid as Valentine.
In the course of the story, we get a detailed portrait of three sets of parents: Stella’s bourgeois but well-meaning mother and father, Valentine’s disengaged parents, as well as the misguided mother of a friend and an equally misguided teacher. Amid all the talk of Beckett and Marx, there is an echo of Romeo and Juliet with their self-absorbed parents and self-appointed guides. This R&J structure gives the story a great frame; in both there is not only the lure of love, but also misguided adults, and the complicating lure of drugs. Where the story clearly differs is in the sex; while Romeo and Juliet fall to bed with ease and passion, Stella and Valentine have a far more complicated relationship with sex.
What’s interesting is that the story springs out of the seventies, a time when no one understood the force of drugs, and we were just beginning to think openly about the varieties of sexual expression. From this distance of forty years, it is hard to remember all that we didn’t know in those days.
Layered, rich with characterization, allusive, detailed, and meticulously paced — it’s a great story.