‘Clever Girl’ by Tessa Hadley


Clever Girl by Tess Hadley, 2011

The magic trick:

Telling the story of a girl’s self-actualization through her relationship with two other characters

Another day, another (fairly) recent New Yorker story that is as much an advertisement for its parent novel as anything. Perhaps that is putting things a little too cynically, but, hey, standalone stories are nice too!

Anyway, it’s a dumb point to argue because many of such excerpts work just fine as short stories. This one is not my favorite example. It’s OK, to be sure, but nothing special. There definitely is a sense of something missing – you know, like the rest of the novel.

Interestingly, the story reveals its narrator’s self-actualization through a consideration of two other characters. Or at least through considerations of the narrator’s relationship with two other characters – her stepfather and a neighbor. Instead of dwelling on her character, we see her growth through her interactions with others. We see the way she gains confidence and a clarity of observation. It also allows for character development in lieu of actual plot. And that’s quite a trick on Hadley’s part.

The selection:

A girl came out from the back door of the next house, picking her way across the red clay. For a while, she and I were intensely mutually aware without seeming to notice each other, behind the convenient fiction of the fence wire. When we outgrew that pretense, she stepped across it and approached my stump.

“Hello,” she said. “Have you moved in next door?”

“It’s you who’s next door to us,” I said logically. “Counting from here.”

She didn’t notice that I’d corrected her perspective.

“Oh, good. We can be friends. I hoped there’d be a girl.”

Her threshold for friendship wasn’t exacting, then. She seemed unsubtle, and I was a wary, reluctant friend. At least because she was eager, it was easy for me to withhold my approval. She was pretty: breathy and bouncing, with round eyes like a puppy’s, a mass of fuzzy, light-colored hair, and a tummy that strained against her tight stretch-nylon dress. I liked her name, which was Madeleine. She picked up my doll and began to walk her in silly, jouncing steps around the stump, seesawing her legs; I snatched her back. My belief in my dolls, at that point, was in a delicate balance. I knew that they were inert plastic and could be tumbled without consequences upside down and half naked in the toy box. At the same time, I seemed to feel the complex sensibility of each one, like an extra skin stretched taut and responsive, both in my mind and quite outside of me. Unlike my Teddy bear, who was capable of irony, this doll—her name was Teenager—was stiffly humorless. She was outraged by Madeleine’s travesty of real play.


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