Generational saga better than all right

Tessa Hadley has written gorgeous contradictions and harmonious and inharmonious interactions into a warm novel that follows the contours of four generations of a family and, in the end, shows us ourselves.

"Everything Will Be All Right" (Henry Holt, $24) focuses on the concerns of everyday people. The novel is captivating and rewarding because Hadley's characters are never simply "good" or "bad"; instead, they are shades of finely hued humanity, and her narrator is neither condemning nor pedantic.

The perspective shifts gracefully from empathy with Vera, Joyce, Zoe and Pearl, four generations of women and their family members, many of whom will stay with the reader long after the last page.

Characters' decisions are shaped partly by expressed desires to set themselves apart from their parents (mainly their mothers), and partly by internal convictions in some stage of development.

Most are willing to accept that they don't have the definitive "answer," as they cope with mentally disturbed relatives, philandering spouses, lovers, rebellious teens, work conferences and even wounded geese, but recognize all as capable of arousing woe and elation. Hadley's deft depictions of characters of many minds provide the story's greatest triumphs.

The novel is perhaps best viewed through an example of one of its character's realizations. As Simon, an academic, works to acquaint himself with his estranged teenage daughter, he expresses a new attitude toward his work, an epiphany indicating the connection between youth and old age, simplicities and complexities:

"He understood that he had been trying to disguise himself progressively further and further inside a language working as a self-enclosed system, purged of the treachery of personality." At this point, the professor has decided his new work will be "riper and warmer," and that he will allow himself to use terms such as "classic," "greatness" and "mastery," words he had trained himself to resist.

"He thought of it as a reclamation in a renewed language of some of the humanists' old ground: a demonstration of a recovered trust, finally, in the best of the culture he was heir to."

In many ways, this sense of "recovered trust" is what stays with the reader. Hadley is afraid of neither the subtly ugly nor the openly sentimental, and her novel is rich for this courage.

In short, Hadley seems to believe in people, and "Everything Will Be All Right" will seem especially fresh to readers who might find some recent trends in fiction to be overwrought, cynical or simplistic.


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