The first decision an author makes in writing a story is this: first person or third? Both have advantages and limitations. First person establishes a kind of instant empathy with the narrator, and provides unlimited access to his or her thoughts and perceptions as the story unfolds. In exchange for this advantage, the author loses access to other characters’ interior lives, unless the book’s structure shifts from narrator to narrator.
First person, with its conversational style and emotional shortcuts, is generally easier for reader and writer alike. What could be more inviting than sliding right into another person’s mind? It’s the choice writers often choose when a major theme of the book is the contrast between the character and the world he lives in, or when character’s observations and unedited responses to that world establish a bond with the reader.
Chick lit, with its quirky, questing narrators, was a perfect first person vehicle, and avalanches of books were written that way. It’s impossible to imagine Bridget Jones’s Diary without Bridget’s wry voice assuring us she’s neither a loser nor a self-obsessed yuppie but someone who makes us smile, someone we like very much, just as she is. On the serious end of the spectrum, Camus used the first person in The Stranger to underscore how alienated Meursault was from the world around him, just as J.D. Salinger used it as the voice of choice for Holden Caulfield.
Tessa Hadley chose first person for her new novel, Clever Girl, and I am still wondering why. Having traded away a broader world view and the option to seeing other points of view, her narrator, Stella, may be the least introspective character in the history of narrative.
Stella is an observer, relating and describing the events of her life without seeming ro experience them. She seldom registers an emotional response or ventures an insight. Perhaps Hadley made this choice to bring us closer to a character who is not easy to relate to, but for for me, this had the opposite effect. It’s a bit like being offered to tour a model home and finding every room empty. It makes the home less, not more, appealing.
Every book needs a framework, a kind of dynamic tension, to hold the thing together and keep you reading. In some books, like a good mystery, it’s the plot. In other books, it’s the setting or the characters. In this case, Stella’s remoteness undermines that tension. The plot is flattened because her telling is flat. We don’t find meaning in the events of her life because she doesn’t.
I see on my list of books read that this isn’t the first of this author’s books for me. In 2002 I read Accidents in the Home. I don’t remember a thing about it, which is probably a good sign that Hadley is just not my kind of writer.
Clever Girl got many kudos for being brilliantly written. The writing has its moments, but the moments don’t add up to enough, and I ended up knowing less and caring less about Stella than I did on page one.
Jury of one: Would I read this book again? No