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New novel is less than all right

EverythingWill Be All Right

By Tessa Hadley

Holt, 303 pp., $24

Tessa Hadley's acclaimed first novel, "Accidents in the Home," was the stylish and compelling portrait of a frowzy British family in the throes of various mishaps and miscalculations. It was sad yet hilarious, quietly suspenseful, and expertly constructed. Looking back on it from a distance of over a year, readers might still see the harried Clare and her grubby children, the earnest husband, the rainstorm, the ruined car. We remember the unexpected twists like Clare's aborted affair and her funny conversations with her enviable, or was it envious, single friend, Helly. On top of that, we remember the author's amused intelligence, which puts her work in the company of that by Carol Shields and Doris Lessing.

Looking back on Hadley's new novel from a distance of less than a week is an entirely different exercise. Mostly I remember riffling through the densely written pages in search of anything that doesn't read like notes, character sketches, summarized scenes, and undigested ideas for the entertaining book that never got written.

According to the jacket copy, "Everything Will Be All Right" spans "five decades of extraordinary change in women's lives" and explores "the complicated relationships of one family." I guess this is safe enough: Aunt Vera, a teacher; Lil, a widowed mother; Lil's daughter, Joyce, a resourceful housewife and entrepreneur; Joyce's daughter, Zoe, a college professor studying arms trading and the nuclear age; and Zoe's daughter, Pearl, do make five, while the changes in many women's lives between the late 1940s and 2002 have arguably been extraordinary. The jacket copy goes on to call this novel "intricate, insightful, and poignant." Well, if the page after page of summarized scene and exhaustively conceived character were to find their way into an actual flesh-and-blood story, then that statement would likely be true as well.

Like "Accidents in the Home," this novel, set in England, burdens its heroines with the company of dull, self-satisfied men. Here, Joyce's husband, Ray, is the anxious artist, and Zoe's Simon the aggrieved intellectual. And like "Accidents," this book situates us in a world whose social and cultural fashions are carefully witnessed and smartly portrayed. But however astute Hadley's portrait of 1950s boarding schools and early 21st-century academe, however carefully she limns Simon's asceticism, Ray's vulnerable ego, Zoe's naivet, and Pearl's rebelliousness, nothing ever quite comes to pass. Sure, people come of age, endure, mess up, and go bravely on. But if the effect of Hadley's earlier book was of immersing oneself in a moving, breathing episode, the effect here is of watching a giant mural scroll past, and of waiting, to no avail, for the busy timeline to pause at whatever moment might make the wait worthwhile.

Instead, Hadley's apparent themes, like failure in friendship and love, solidarity in the face of personal and historic sorrows, dissipate rather than achieving dramatic effect. There's a promising encounter between Zoe and a new girl . . . but the friendship never coalesces. And while the scenes concerning Zoe and Pearl are mesmerizing in and of themselves, the relationship quickly gives way to far less rewarding accounts of other characters. Throughout, repeated reference to Sept. 11 only dresses up Hadley's clever indictment of scholars like Zoe who, "drunk on power," exalt "over the excesses that proved" their case, and gives rise, ultimately, to sentimentality.

Is the Hadley who wrote what one reviewer called the "surprising and rewarding" "Accidents in the Home" still out there? Certainly. Her marvelous short story "The Surrogate," recently published in The New Yorker, proves it, with room to spare.

Abby Frucht's recent novels are "Life Before Death" and "Polly's Ghost." She teaches at the Vermont College MFA in Writing Program.

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