Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review: Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

Domestic set novels have long been disparaged. They are said to not have enough excitement or not to deal with large enough themes. And yet they frequently deal with the same themes that more wide ranging novels do, just in a more concentrated and subtle form. People have the potential to learn and grow in their everyday life just as much as they do when on a quest, on an adventure, or facing the unknown. The best domestic novelists prove this fact easily. Tessa Hadley is a beautiful writer and she knows the perfect pitch for a novel centered tightly around one woman, her life, and the small and large choices that determine her trajectory and yet, despite this, her new novel, Clever Girl, somehow just misses the mark.

Written in a series of chapters structured as short stories or vignettes, Stella is a child when the novel opens. She lives with her mother in a tiny flat in Bristol. She's been told that her father is dead but eventually learns that he left when she was a toddler. Stella is a curious and clever child, content to live simply with her mother and spend a lot of time with her nearby grandmother. The novel takes the reader through Stella's childhood, her becoming a teen mom and dropping out of school, living in a commune of sorts, depending on unlikely friends, going back to school as a mature adult, and eventually into her settled and somehow unsatisfactory feeling middle age. Although Stella shows promise when she's young, she makes bad decision after bad decision. Her life seems to be undirected but in fact she makes deliberate choices that lead her to each stage in her life. And after each choice, she is lucky enough to have an extended network step in and support her in moving forward.

Although a novel, the story is told entirely in Stella's voice looking back in time, making it feel like a reflective memoir. And despite it being told chronologically, there are some disconcertingly large gaps in the narrative. These gaps may not have changed Stella's character but because they are missing, some of the links between her stages in life feel like they are missing vital information as well. Stella's narration comes across as disconnected and emotionally detached. This could be because she is telling the story in hindsight but it makes it hard to feel in the moment with her and makes her life seem mundane despite events that should have added excitement. The novel's pacing is slow moving and so no matter how much I wanted to like this clearly well written novel, I just never warmed to it or to its main character who never seemed to change or develop. The bigger themes are missing here and without them, the story just meanders. As much as I loved Hadley's Married Love, set in similar situations to those that Stella finds herself in, I just didn't feel the same tug of recognition and emotional truth that was present in that collection.

Tessa Hadley has written several other books, including Accidents in the Home, which was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. I do want to try this one soon. I just like the sound of it.

  2. People are wrong. People need to read more books! ;) I agree that you don't have to go on a quest in order to learn and grow and that adventure can happen in your own backyard. Sounds like this novel shows just that! Great review.

  3. It sound like this book has a lot of good things going for it ... too bad that it missed the mark for you, but thanks for your honest review for the tour.

  4. Glad you reviewed this one b/c it had gotten good press but I wasn't sure it'd be for me. Thanks.

  5. I actually enjoyed this one a great deal, but I understand where you're coming from regarding the big gaps in the narrative. I found Stella to be a difficult person to like, but I did empathize with her and enjoyed seeing some of her growth. I wish her boys had featured more prominently as characters in their own right, but the story's tight focus on Stella worked well for me!


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts