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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Under the Sign of the Moon," by Tessa Hadley

Okay...I'm now fully convinced the New Yorker will accept and print any piece of fiction within its pages, regardless of quality, as long as it's written by one of the NYer's "approved" fiction writers. There's no other explanation for how this completely under-cooked story--"Under the Sign of the Moon," by Tessa Hadley--was allowed to make it into the magazine.

If I were the fiction editor I'd have, at the very least, sent it back to the author and said, "Add another 1,000 words and work on this some more"; at the very most, I'd have said, "You know what, Ms. Hadley...maybe not this time." This story is a like a dinner in which the waiter takes your entree away while you're still eating, draws you a picture of dessert, and then hands you the bill. I don't think I've ever felt quite so cheated by a NYer story.

I'm not a big Tessa Hadley fan, to begin with. I find her characters flimsy and not very likable, and the endings of her stories always seem contrived and not quite as shocking or upsetting as she (clearly) intends them to be. The sad thing is, she actually had me interested in the main character for most of the story and I was fully ready to let this story change my opinion of her fiction.

The story has a pretty interesting premise: A middle-aged English woman, Greta, travels from London to Liverpool to spend the week with her daughter. Greta is recovering from an unnamed illness, probably some kind of cancer, and is a little unsure of herself. The illness and treatment have shaken her confidence in herself and her appearance. She meets an odd-looking male stranger on the train and, despite her attempts to ignore him, he ultimately succeeds in getting her to speak a few words to him and even have coffee at the train station. They meet for a drink later in the week and the stranger, drunk, makes an embarrassing and completely unwarranted pass at Greta in the restaurant -- burying his face in her lap (WTF?) -- and she tells him to leave.

About midway through the story I knew something was wrong; I looked at the amount of words that remained and I just knew the author had written herself into a situation she had no hope of getting out of in a fulfilling way. It was a great set-up, but a sad and uninteresting finish.

I would like to point out that Hadley is good at inhabiting a character's head space and articulating the way the human mind works, the ways that memories drift in and out of our minds, the ways past experience influences our behavior, the reasons we tell ourselves for the things we do, etc. She's really good at this, actually, and she's as good a writer of sentences as any contemporary author I've read. It's just...she needs to work on the resolutions to these stories. A story isn't "over" just because you write "The End" after the last sentence. I wanted more out of this story and I wanted something redeeming or at least valuable to happen to the main character, but that didn't happen here.


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