I received this book for free from the publisher / TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley
Published by Harper on March 4, 2014
Source: the publisher / TLC Book Tours
Goodreads | Amazon
But I had a vision in that moment of the three of us together in that room, remote as if seen from a very far off place–like the vision of Mac’s whaling ships. And I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life, which we set such store by. The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you.
Stella is a fifty-year-old woman who has lived a pretty ordinary life in England. Her story starts in the late 1950s, where she lived in a small, rundown apartment with her single mother. Each chapter in Clever Girl reads like a vignette about a certain time in Stella’s life, from her time in that tiny flat through her adult years as a single mother herself. The majority of Stella’s experiences are rather ordinary–nothing that lots of people haven’t gone through themselves at some point–but Tessa Hadley (through Stella) has a way of making those experiences and Stella’s life seem interesting and a little exciting, in a way. Stella’s inner life has a lot to do with that.
Clever Girl is not only about Stella, though–it’s also about England in the second half of the 20th century. Class and its influences on the characters play a huge role in this book.
I’m on the fence about whether or not I truly enjoyed Clever Girl.
On one hand, I love Hadley’s writing and I would have continued to read the book for that reason only, even if I found I didn’t like the story. Hadley has a way with words that is simple and lovely. I really connected with Stella’s thoughts and ideas about motherhood and relationships. I felt her confusion about growing up, discovering herself, and trying (often unsuccessfully) to figure out what who she wanted to be. Stella’s relationship with herself struck a chord in me.
On the other hand, Stella isn’t a very likable character, which is fine in itself. I don’t need to like all (or any) of the characters in a book in order to enjoy reading it. There is something to say for unlikable characters and the reality of that. But Stella is annoying more often than not. The title of the book is Stella’s description of herself, and her self-proclaimed cleverness tends to make her condescending and irritating. As she tells her story, she talks a lot about philosophy and literature and how those things continued to shape her ideas about herself and others. Unfortunately, she has a habit of thinking she’s clever but wanting to hide her cleverness from people in order to keep them from judging her or disagreeing with her in case she’s “wrong.” And this doesn’t always come across as insecurity (which I could forgive). One minute I was mentally nodding with and high-fiving Stella, and the next minute I was rolling my eyes and wishing she would grow up and get a grip. (Maybe this is because I’ve known people like Stella in real life and they tend to annoy the crap out of me. Heh.)
Overall, I liked Clever Girl…but it didn’t blow me away. I’m not sure it was meant to, really. I’d like to think it’s one of those books that should be read more than once, slowly, in order to really appreciate what the author is trying to do (or succeeding in doing), but with all the other books out there I’d like to read, I don’t think I’ll be taking the time to read this one again. It’s a good book, but one that I wish I would have gotten more out of the first time around.
If you like well-written, realistic stories about ordinary lives, I recommend Hadley’s Clever Girl. There are a lot of readers out there who will really enjoy it.