Zach was an easy and easy-to-love man, full of bustling life, a wealthy art dealer who, at a child’s birthday party, would rather be upstairs with the 4-year-olds than drinking with the adults. His absence destabilizes Lydia in ways beyond simple grief — in part because she’s a woman with very little to do, one who has refused paid work and charity work alike and cultivates idleness. “Now I don’t know how I’m going to fill my days!” she cries, an echo of her decades-earlier longing for Alex: “Unless Alex wants me I’m not real. … I’m just a shadow.” At the end of the first chapter, we see Lydia, who has temporarily moved in with Alex and Christine, climbing into bed between them. This is before we know her past with Alex, before we learn that one night years earlier, the four of them almost embarked — but didn’t quite — on a ménage à quatre. But the tension of all we don’t yet know still suffuses the scene. We sense, correctly, that Hadley has built us a fine pipe bomb.
So unquestioningly do the women, in their earlier years, enjoy “the golden good fortune of being chosen” and so subtly do all the characters undervalue Christine’s viable career as a visual artist even as they fetishize Alex’s neglected writing that one worries the narrative and the author are doing the same — until it becomes clear that these are the very complacencies Hadley is here to dismantle.
For it’s not just Zach who has held the four of them, and the two marriages, together; it’s the power structures they agreed to in their 20s, the vows they took when they were different people. (“Marriage,” Christine thinks, “simply meant that you hung on to each other through the succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to.”)
As their lives unravel, we wonder with Christine if the “questioning of impervious male knowledge had always come to women at a certain age, in their prime, as they grew out of the illusions of girlhood. Or was it a new thing coming about in history, because of cultural change?” The novel seems to suggest the former. By the end, the romantic fates of the couples’ two grown daughters are still being left to fate and chance, while Christine and Lydia begin for the first time to make their own choices. We see, as well, an older generation of women represented in Alex’s mother, who dispenses surprisingly liberated sexual advice to her granddaughter, years after her own disappointing marriage, and in Christine’s mother, who also offers late-in-life wisdom: “Aren’t men ridiculous?” she asks. It might not be history that frees us, Hadley seems to suggest, but personal history, a late coming-of-age.
I’m not the first to compare Tessa Hadley to Virginia Woolf, not even in these pages, and “Late in the Day” calls to mind, in particular, Woolf’s “The Waves” in its circling around a magnetic central character (for Woolf, it’s Percival, beloved childhood friend of six overlapping narrators) whose absence becomes the book’s main character. While we never hear from Woolf’s lost Percival, we hear only fleetingly from Zach and really don’t need more. He works best as an uncomplicated force, his silence (like Percival’s) mirroring his disappearance from the world of the story.