by Tessa Hadley
Not until about halfway through The Master Bedroom did I pin down what was vaguely unlikable about Kate Flynn. Though not an outstanding violin player, she plays in a quartet where she tries not to seem self-conscious of her mistakes. She’s prone to snap judgments and dramatic, yet simultaneously quiet suffering. She translates Russian literature for a living after quitting her professor gig. She forgets to eat. In the back of my mind, she reminds me of an orchestra teacher I didn’t get along with. I’m not sure anyone got along with her — maybe they had a begrudging respect for her way of hassling (certainly not inspiring) us to be better players. Though this main character isn’t just like that teacher, and I’m conjecturing a personal life, the vibe is hard to ignore. As such, I had a harder time enjoying the story.
Tessa Hadley’s exceptional writing and varied points of view kept me going, still eager to discover how it all worked out in the end. Kate has moved back to Cardiff to care for her mother at the formerly opulent family home. Stepping back into the past is uncomfortable, but no more uncomfortable than she felt in London.
She has screwed up her own professional life as if it didn’t matter and stepped outside it into where she was no one.
One night at the opera, Kate runs into her childhood friend, David. He’s a staid doctor with a second wife whose mental state he’s begun to question. The two reignite their friendship, with all that necessary sexual tension.
Separately, Kate meets his oldest son, Jamie. Jamie’s mother Francesca committed suicide when he was a baby, and he wants to know what his mother was really like. Kate endears herself when she gives a somewhat unforgiving, but realistic portrait of the woman she once knew. Despite apprehension about his age and his familial status, they work their way towards a secret relationship.
Through every conversation, Kate seems to narrate aloud, as though she were constructing a story. Whether passing it off as a way to help her mother’s gaps in memory or when hashing out her feelings to friends, she never chooses simplicity:
“We had to go into the greenhouse to keep warm. Full of sparrows zinging about, drunk with relief, thinking it’s summer.”
While her way of speaking provided even more instances of Hadley’s great use of sense memory, I found it trying after a while. I felt like one of those annoying creative writing teachers who circles portions of students’ dialogue and notes, “No one talks like this.” But this woman talks like this; she constructs her own reality as framed by her favorite Russian novels. I get it.
The trouble with The Master Bedroom is that while I found sentence after paragraph after page that made me want to start writing something new, I still found Kate rather unlikeable. Comparisons to a former teacher aside, she didn’t grow to any significant degree. She potters around her life, straining to feel like “herself,” though I was never quite sure who that was. Though she’s willing to vaguely complain to her friends, she expects her romantic interests to read her mind. She can’t be bothered to take charge, despite her feelings. It’s an attitude I don’t really understand.
David has similar problems, though he suffers from being too sensible, always considering what’s the easiest solution for everyone around him, and not what will ultimately satisfy him. When his wife rebuffs his questions about what is bothering her, he drops it. He wonders what Jamie’s plans for the future are, but when his son bristles at university suggestions, David leaves him alone. No wonder he and Kate are all tension and no action. Music provides an outlet for all his unarticulated feelings.
David found himself drawn in, despite himself, to the familiar twists and turns of misapprehension, the secrets, concealments, longings, devices, trickery, notes fastened with a pin; the promise of joys. Where else did music come from?
Or better yet, why else do we listen?
After massively enjoying Hadley’s Everything Will Be All Right, I had high hopes for The Master Bedroom. Even with some disappointment, I am still consumed by the need to devour the rest of her back catalogue. Anyone who makes me care about a character I’d dislike in real life is worth further exploration. She makes me want to do better.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.