STARRED REVIEW
March 2014

A simple story of everyday life, elegantly told

By Tessa Hadley
Review by

Is there anyone who hasn’t wondered which actions and incidents most gave shape to their lives? In Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl, Stella is the author of her own life, recounting her story in a series of gracefully drawn but honestly expressed episodes starting in the 1960s and running to the present day.

Share this Article:

Is there anyone who hasn’t wondered which actions and incidents most gave shape to their lives? In Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl, Stella is the author of her own life, recounting her story in a series of gracefully drawn but honestly expressed episodes starting in the 1960s and running to the present day.

Told in a series of perfectly observed moments, Clever Girl is not about what you want your life to be, but what you do with what life hands you.

We first encounter Stella as a 10-year-old girl living with her mother in a small apartment in Bristol on the west coast of England. Though her mother alleges she is a widow, Stella comes to other conclusions about her absent father’s real whereabouts. A bright and dreamy girl, she spends time reading and riding at the local stables. When her mother remarries, Stella finds herself chafing against her stepfather’s conventional household, drawn instead to the freedoms promised by the more permissive 1970s and the opportunities brought by a scholarship to a prestigious school.

Clever Girl is less about what you want your life to be than what you do with what life hands you. By the time she is in her early 20s, Stella is a single mother with two children. School is an impossibility, and she makes ends meet by keeping house for an English professor and later working in an art gallery.

Stella reveals her story as a series of moments, almost like a picaresque novel. The connecting thread is her cleverness, here translated as intellectual capabilities as well as curiosity about life. Though at one point she feels as though books “have let her down,” it is still her acumen that allows her to provide the links between one incident and the next.

Hadley is a consummate writer who excels at the kind of honest material details that fully round every scene. As someone who was born at roughly the same time as Stella, I can assure you Hadley’s recreation of the decades from 1960 to 2000 is deliciously accurate. Clever Girl is an elegant and accomplished novel that will entertain but also make you contemplate the trajectory of your own life.

Trending Reviews

Get the Book

Clever Girl

Clever Girl

By Tessa Hadley
Harper
ISBN 9780062270399

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.