This is the first Tessa Hadley novel I’ve read in some time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy her writing but she sets her books in a world that can feel a little too small for me. It was clear from its premise that the same would be true of Late in the Day but I found it an appealing idea. It’s about a group of late middle-aged friends whose lives are blown apart and put back together in a very different way after one of them dies suddenly.
Alex and Christine are listening to music one summer’s evening – he deeply immersed, she not entirely sure what she’s listening to but reluctant to give him the upper hand by asking what it is – when their peace is disturbed by the sound of the phone. It’s Lydia calling from the hospital to say that Zachery has dropped dead at his gallery. Christine rushes to help her, inviting her home to stay with them. These two have been friends since school just as Alex and Zachery have. Lydia had conceived a passion for Alex who taught French to both her and Christine at university but it was Zachery who she married after Christine and Alex got together. Christine and Zachery had also briefly been lovers. The two couples have remained close friends: their daughters becoming confidantes, Zachery showing Christine’s paintings at his gallery, sharing holidays, dinners and conversation over decades. Now the warm, open and loving centre around which they had arranged themselves has been removed stripping away the compromise and comfort of their lives and relationships. What ensues is not entirely surprising, yet it results in both the upending of what seemed immutable and the building of new lives.
Late in the Day tackles themes of ageing and marriage through four friends whose lives are intricately and closely interwoven, exploring gender roles within two apparently very different relationships. Both Lydia and Christine think of themselves as feminists and yet Lydia seems incapable of functioning without a man while Christine kicks against Alex’s innate need to be the superior partner. As ever, Hadley’s writing is quietly accomplished, intelligent and perceptive. The scenes immediately after Zachery’s death expertly convey the feeling of aching grief, shock and dislocation of sudden loss but there’s something a little old-fashioned about her work. It reminds me of Margaret Drabble’s Hampstead novels which is perhaps why I’m often in two minds as to whether to read one or not. That said, I enjoyed this latest offering with its hope of change and new beginnings emerging from the pain of grief and loss.