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I Want My Heart to Crack My Sternum

By Sara | Books | June 11, 2010 |

By Sara | Books | June 11, 2010 |

I wanted to hug this book’s face off. If you’re not familiar with Sara-praise, that’s the kind of swooning compliment I reserve for Noel Gallagher and “The West Wing.” As in, I find very few faults in what I see, and the faults I do find, I brush off with the affection of an indulgent spouse. Talent moves me, particularly good writing.

So you’re saying you liked the book, Sara? Yes, I loved the book.

I first became acquainted with Tessa Hadley when The New Yorker published her story, “She’s the One.” (You can find all of her New Yorker stories here.) It had to do, partially, with writers and was set in the North of England. Of course I liked it. Wanting to know more, I decided to see what the library had.

Everything Will Be All Right covers several generations of women within one family, starting with a move from the North into the South of England, post-Word War II. If that sounds suspiciously like “women’s fiction” — that shudder-worthy label slapped on any novel with more than two uteri — one should be comforted to know that there is very little tearful bonding or coveting of accessories. This is a novel where the past continually informs the present, and each person must assess what brings them happiness and what must be sacrificed for success.

At 13, Joyce Stevenson lives with her mother, Lil, her sister Ann, along with her Aunt Vera and her children. Vera’s husband spends most of his time with another woman, and Lil is a widow, but the sisters vary widely in their demeanor. Vera, a teacher, values rules and education — facts as a means for comfort. Lil is more easy-going, and she takes care of all the housework, uninterested in books or further education.

Joyce decides to attend art school, where she is immediately entranced by the intense and talented teacher, Ray. He often invites groups of students over for parties, filled with booze and debate:

“Passionate discussions raged, always through a thick cloud of cigarette and pipe smoke: over art, over jazz, over privilege and class. At that time in the mid-fifties all the men wanted to be working class; they argued over whose parents were most authentically proletarian.”

She and Ray begin a relationship shortly after one of the parties, and they eventually marry. Their daughter, Zoe, is a smart and serious child who is attracted to anyone with a worldly manner. At around 10, this person is Fiona:

“She and Fiona clung together, laughing into each other’s shoulders. Zoe was completely happy. Instead of imagining life’s possible intensity, she was inside it; it filled her.”

When she and Fiona go to different secondary schools, they begin to drift apart — still seeing each other on occasion, but they are now in different worlds. Fiona, still cool and confident at the state school, is so much unlike studious Zoe attending the all-girl academy. Their fading friendship and Zoe’s quiet heartbreak killed me, just killed me.

When it’s Zoe’s turn for college, she attends Cambridge and falls for her own beautiful, tortured artist — a writer named Simon. They live a bohemian, non-materialistic lifestyle. Unlike her mother, who made a concerted effort towards marriage and adapting to her husband’s quirks, Zoe and Simon have a fractious relationship. She is smitten by his brilliance, but he can also be cold, even superior towards her. They end up with a daughter of their own, Pearl, born in the 1980s. Time eventually passes to just after 9/11, when Pearl is a teenager.

This is all a very bare-bones summation. To be honest, there’s so much to get into and feel enthusiasm over that I could write a rather involved essay. I don’t want to give away too much for future readers.

Reading this further cemented that I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself an intellectual. I think there’s a difference between that and being intelligent. I’m smart, sure, but everything to which I react strongly or think deeply about, I do so in an emotional way. I’m less interested in flexing my brain; I can do that in other ways. When it comes to any art, I want my heart to crack my sternum.

With that in mind, allow me to share a few of my favorite, rib-filling portions:

“She crossed to the bed, sat naked on his pillow, and from there slipped herself down inside the space his body had made in the sheets; right down into it, so that she was quenched in its dark and immersed in its not unpleasant male-bed smell, of pipe smoke and sweat and unwashed hair. For a few long moments she breathed in and out.”

” — At this moment, he said, I can’t contemplate it. Not with you pressed up against me like that.”

“And the idea of a buckling container became a kind of shorthand sign for Zoe for years afterward, signifying that momentous first encounter with someone who is going to be important and be loved.”

Hadley moves throughout time and points of view with expertise. Just about every 10 pages, I found myself scribbling down quotes and then slowing down, torn between completing the story and inhaling each bit I loved.

Speaking of which, as a writer who is often kept up at night obsessing over scent descriptions, she often gets it so right, that it sets the scene more than any other description could. I should be so lucky:

“She could feel him bulky and hot and soft beside her; she could smell him, a spicy mix of sweat and spirits and smoke and something personal, a green smell like cut grass.”

Intense longing, bedtime smells, English accents and complicated artists? Man, it’s like someone created a book with me in mind, if only to give me a break from thinking about musicians.

This isn’t a tidy review; it doesn’t heed to journalistic standards or might not adequately capture the whole of the novel, but much like the story, I suppose life isn’t so tidy either. Whether above or below our expectations, it’s nothing if not surprising. Pick up this book. I cannot recommend it enough.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Sara’s reviews, check out her blog, Glorified Love Letters.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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