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The Master BedroomReview - The Master Bedroom
A Novel
by Tessa Hadley
Picador, 2007
Review by Heather C. Liston
Jan 6th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 2)

The Master Bedroom, Tessa Hadley's 2007 novel, opens with a denial.  "It was not a sign."  That statement, and the negative proclamations that follow it ("Kate refused to let it be a sign.  She hated driving anyway.") set the stage for a story that is rife with negation and denial, flirting with the supernatural while never quite resolving its ambiguities, and, nevertheless, intriguing in both its simplicity and its depth, as it delves into the emotional and existential states of a middle-aged woman retreating from the life she has built and grasping, sometimes amateurishly, at other possibilities.

Hadley's prose, as always, is clear, direct, and insightful, and her story moves forward with a smooth rapidity that compels the reader's interest in spite of a not-always-sympathetic heroine. 

          The first characters we meet--the protagonist Kate, who is leaving her university job in London, mostly out of boredom, to return to her birthplace in Cardiff, Wales, and move in with her elderly mother; and Suzie, the wife of a childhood friend of Kate's--are actively ignoring each other.  There's been a car accident, involving Suzie and a swan, which both women imbue with mystical meaning, but they assiduously avoid seeking any sort of connection with, or comfort from, each other even in this disturbing circumstance.

Kate is by turns both vain and depressingly self-deprecating; she can be selfish and careless, and sometimes worse.  Although her mother, Billie, is slipping into dementia, and Kate's stated purpose for returning is to care for her, she in fact provides very little care and less compassion. The family is wealthy, and the professional housecleaning company is an off-screen character that seems to take care of most of the physical necessities, including sitting with Billie when necessary.  Kate's verbal interactions with her mother are harsh and sarcastic; she is not a caregiver by nature, so the excuse of returning home because her help is needed is easily exposed.

Why, then, does she do it?

The Master Bedroom is about midlife, but perhaps not about crisis. Kate has realized a need for hiatus, which may or may not lead to review, assessment, change of direction, and/or return.  She is trying to find herself by first giving up the elements of the adult "self" she has built.  She takes a vague sort of leave of absence from her professorial career, sublets her flat, puts her belongings in storage, and leaves her smart, sophisticated friends behind.  When she meets a group of local teenaged boys in Cardiff who tell her they would never return here if they could go to London, she teases them vulgarly: "You're eager to be gone. But that's how it is. Like being born: can't wait to get out; spend the rest of your life trying to get back in."  And still, she's not suited to the country life herself, either. She refers to the area as "the provinces" once, and has to be reminded that Wales is actually a country.  Although she grew up here, she's far from a place in which she knows herself.

Kate is musically talented, a skilled translator with an unfinished assignment, and probably a passable writer, but is unmotivated to work at anything;  She seems to want to do nothing, as if losing all is a necessary step on the way to finding something. 

The involuntary, unexpected physical changes of the forties, are, of course, responsible for much of the confusion, dismay, and changed behavior that erupts in certain people around this time. Kate refers to herself as old, and wrinkled, and skinny, and dry; she leaves shocks of white in her hair.  And yet she has not given up on the idea of finding meaning through seduction. Even in her general passivity, she eagerly, aggressively, and with little regard for the destruction it will bring to others, pursues sexual liaisons with both a married man and a confused, lonely boy (with him, she disingenuously protests that he is doing all the pursuing); and she continues to string along, whenever it is convenient for her and her alone, an old flame who has married someone else after having been rejected by her.  At times, it feels as if she thinks her advanced age excuses her from all morality.  At others, it seems that she can't quite imagine her slight self being consequential enough to cause serious effects on others.

One of the book's most powerful moments occurs when Kate meets again, after many years, the mother of a friend of hers who committed suicide at twenty-six.  Kate realizes that the other woman is disconcerted to see how old she has gotten.  Her daughter's life was frozen at twenty-six, but the daughter's contemporaries have continued to move on, using up their imperfect lives, and they no longer carry the sense of promise and possibility she imagined for them.  Seeing all this in the eyes of the older woman, "Kate had a chilly vision of herself on the slope down from summits that had hardly happened."

It may be that she never reached her summits because, in the momentum and general busyness of youth, she never thought about which way to head. 

The Master Bedroom reminds us that many of life's momentous events appear as accidents we create for ourselves, half (or more) unwittingly.  From the automobile accident in the opening scene to the "accidental" pregnancy that propels her choices at the end, Kate moves through this interval in her life uncertain about what she is seeking and yet finding it anyway.

The other players in her drama will pull through, most likely, without too much damage.  Just as David, the married father, is on the verge of committing himself to Kate and destroying his family, circumstances begin to shift around him and he realizes that, "Whatever he had imagined . . . he must keep at bay. It was the kind of mess that women like Kate made."  His tormented son, Kate's other lover, goes away to spend some time with a strong grandmother and work on his university applications, while David moves back into the double bed he used to share with his wife, "relieved and grateful."

Kate ultimately heads for the new world, literally full of hope and possibility for the future, walking on shoes that are impractical, gorgeous, a little eccentric, and exactly what she likes.

© First Serial rights 2009 Heather C. Liston

Heather Liston is a free lance writer based in San Francisco


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