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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Valentine" by Tessa Hadley

Each week I review the short fiction from the latest issue of The New Yorker. Or should I say, the latest one that's been delivered to me...

Issue: April 8th, 2013

Story: "Valentine"

Author: Tessa Hadley

Plot: Essentially, a teenaged English girl named Stella, barely out of grammar school, falls in love with a wispy, long-haired, Galoise-smoking, Beckett-reading (and oh so emotionally & sexually unavailable) hippie/ster prep-school boy in the hazy, weed-smokey, long-haired, halcyon days of the 70s, when the bloom of culture and liberal values that took place in San Francisco in the middle-60s had seeped into bourgeois culture around the world. They lay together in the garden and smoke weed, under the permission of the neighbor's "cool" parents, they listen to Janis, Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground, they talk about moving to the West Village, they admire Communism, and they hate their parents. After a few months of heavy petting, they have sex twice and Valentine leaves the country.

Review: Some of the intimate scenes between Stella and Valentine seemed so maudlin and trite they gave me the willies and made me want to put the story down. Take for example: "Our bodies fit perfectly together--my knees pressed into the backs of his, my breath in the nape of his neck, his fingers knotted mine against his chest...the shape of the long, empty room seemed the shape of our shared imagination, spacious and open." Not that I'm heartless, in fact I'm usually up for a good romance, but that's barf-worthy.

Also, haven't we had enough of this "It was the summer of love, we were 15 and out of our minds, getting stoned and reading Beat Poetry while we listened to psychedelic rock" bullshit? I'm sure the late 60s/early 70s were a transformational time for popular culture and I'm sure I'd have loved to have been a teenager back then. But, all the same, there's been too much of this gauzy, 60s/70s middle-class, bohemian teenaged romance foisted upon us from a number of different angles, well, EVER SINCE THE 60s AND 70s. Nobody cares any more.

Even on a purely plot-based level, there's not much more to go on. There seems to be the slightest suggestion that Val is gay. Stella's mother says he looks like a girl and that Stella is "barking up the wrong tree." Val has a strangely close relationship with a male teacher of his, that ends with the teacher jealously throwing milk bottle through Val's window while he's canoodling with Stella. Val also doesn't seem very interested in actual sex with Stella, either. Except at the very end, when they have sex twice and we're left with the idea that Stella becomes pregnant.

Oh yeah, they also run away together, and Stella says that she can "never go back," all of which seems about as believable as Iran saying they're going to give up their nuclear weapons program. I'd have believed it if, perhaps, it were developed a bit better, or if the character were a little more independent, but...neither was the case.

In honor of Roger Ebert's recent passing, I give this story two thumbs down.


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