Tessa Hadley’s “She’s the One” goes directly on my list of best stories of the year, even though I was vaguely unsatisfied by the ending. I liked a great deal the drama of Ally’s situation—she’s recently graduated, her brother has just killed himself, she’s stifled by a grieving mother, and suddenly finds herself in the company of a brash Canadian writer—and the portrayal of the characters, so that I think the ending matters less to me than it usually does. Ally, dealing with all of the above, is working in a “writers’ center”—a place where week-long courses for writers are held. There she meets Hilda, who is portrayed in such negative terms that I was relieved that she isn’t American. (I imagine Hadley thinking of her initially as American but then wincing at the stereotype; she solves the problem nicely by making her Canadian.) Hilda turns out to be surprisingly useful to Ally in dealing with her grief, but the story’s climax actually turns on a meeting with Yvonne, the dead brother’s girlfriend.
I thought the writing throughout the story was superb. The descriptions were sharp, the characters—Ally and Hilda, and to a lesser extent the mother and Yvonne—are round. (Men are mostly absent here—Ally’s father is a cipher, her older brother is dead, her younger brother is largely irrelevant.) And I suppose, frankly, the setting in the writers’ center appeals to me. I love the dialogue among the faculty about the students, because I’ve imagined this happening at the conferences I’ve attended. Hilda, too, is a recognizable type, the self-absorbed writer. She gains stature when she announces to Ally that her novel is dead; the fact that she has recognized this indicates that she is now a character who might have something useful to say. And she does.
But the ending. Ally is about to reach out and “grab the gold ring,” but not in the way we normally think of. Or, she has stepped into the river and is baptized. But not in the way we normally think of. Or, she has demonstrated to a silly girl who is apparently the cause of her brother’s death how silly she is. Still not sure what to make of it.
March 23, 2009: “She’s the One” by Tessa Hadley