Monday, March 16, 2009

The New Yorker: "She's the One" by Tessa Hadley

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

14 comments:

Ernie said...

Are the two relationships, the one between Hilda and Ally, and the one between Ally and Yvonne, intended to be seen as parallels?

Much of the story is dedicated to the evolution of the relationship between Hilda and Ally. At first, Ally thinks little of Hilda, and, at the grocery store, Hilda initially pushes Ally away. Hilda quickly puts aside her own pain (over the “death” of her book), however, and reaches out to Ally. The wall between Hilda and Ally eventually breaks down; Ally comes to feel safe in Hilda’s cottage.

The wall between Ally and Yvonne remains until the end. Ally’s going into the river to retrieve the ring is at first just an angry reaction to what Ally perceives as silliness from Yvonne. But Ally's effort ultimately becomes a genuine gesture of good will. Hilda put aside her own pain to reach out to Ally, and the story ends with Ally doing the same for Yvonne.

Paul Epstein said...

Sorry, but my response is much less enthusiastic. The fact that Hilda and Ally would bond after the initial conflict was entirely predictable.
Also, in movies and fiction, people are always flinging (or dropping) important things into water. [For example, every movie seems to have a scene where a person reacts to a ringing cellphone by throwing the phone into a sea or river.]

I prefer Tessa Hadley's previous New Yorker stories.

Paul Epstein

Marc said...

Hi,

I just recently discovered this blog through a Google search I performed to look for discussion of a recent story published in New Yorker. Impressive blog!

Anyway, I agree with Paul about the generic plot elements he mentions, but I'm not at all bothered by them.

Hilda was definitely predictable insofar as she and Ally would get closer, but Hilda's backstory and it's relationship to Ally's were original. Ditto the connection between Ally and Yvonne.

As to the ending, I, too, was perplexed, and have even wondered if Ally has some sort of accident (gets knocked over by the current, something like that).

Mary Elise Dedicke (aka "Mel") said...

Like Marc, I was searching for some thoughtful analysis on this story and found this wonderful blog in the process! And like Clifford, I thought the writing and character development was excellent. In fact, Hilda is the spitting image of a former co-worker of mine who was just laid off a couple months ago, down to the white hair, Canadian origin, veganism, & extremes of behavior. I was like her Ally, forced all the time to self-disclose. Spooky.

Anyway, I was also perplexed by the ending but I do like Ernie's interpretation of it. However, I am still pondering the story within the story; that is, the plot of Hilda's dead novel. Where does that fit in? Perhaps to show that attempting to write her experience in a novel (successful or not) can be a catharsis, the way that Ally entering the river is.

Mark Richardson said...

I really enjoyed the story. Does there need to be a bigger meaning? I suppose so. I was just glad Ally was swept to her death by the river, which i was somewhat expecting. Maybe that says something about me?

Sylvia Tedesco said...

WAS Ally swept to her death in the river? I didn't see that.

Clifford Garstang said...

No. I suspect the commenter left out a "not". I too was expecting her to be swept away and was relieved (from a plotting point of view) when she was NOT.

Anne said...

Intriguing comments, exactly what I was searching for regarding my own response to this superb story.

My inclination was that Ally was not swept to her death. If so,what a harsh punishment for Yvonne to now have the guilt of two deaths on her. My fellow New Yorker buddy, my dad, thinks she was definitely swept away. I was fascinated by the readers' views.

Anne

Anonymous said...

For me the ring at the end of the story represents Ryan. Ynvonne feels that everone hates her....."everyone hates me" Yvonne said. "I suppose that's what he wanted".....and feels responsible for for Ryan killing himself. She feels that if she gives the ring back to Ally then the hate will be gone as well. She also feels that by giving the ring back she also is ridding herself of all the pain she has had. But when Ally doesn't want the ring she is desperate to rid herself of the pain so she throws it in the water on an impulse.

Elizabeth said...

I interpreted the ending to correlate to the title -- "She's the One." In the story Hilda is the "one," but since Hilda only seems to have been the "one," the title refers to Ally who has the wisdom to avoid hysterics like Yvonne's, and won't likely come up with a dead career like Hilda... she has a cool head and seems to ford streams as well as life with intelligence. So, Ally's the "one" where Hilda could have been the "one." Yvonne isn't expanded upon enough to be the "one." This is the only way I could account for the title. In the end -- she takes hold of a treasure -- a metaphor for a bright future?

Seaurchin said...

I was surprised that I liked the ending, because at first glance it seemed ambiguous and I didn’t understand it. This intrigued and provoked me. Why do I like it? I only knew I like it because it fit, which I surmised to mean there must be some sort of resolution. Then slowly it dawned on me when I thought of that moment when Ally turns back to see Yvonne, she’s finally able to see her for what she is a scared confused teenage girl. Like Earnie said, I think she was able to look beyond her grief which allowed her the clarity not to blame Yvonne as I think she unconsciously did, which we see both in the description of the suicide letter and in her judgment of the girl as frivolous and manipulatively attaching seeking. Allie’s grief is tied to her blaming Yvonne to a certain extent which creates the anger she feels for her. Ally doesn’t entirely aware of her anger but the reader can see this in Ally’s description of how the mother feels about Yvonne, how she paints Yvonne in a negative light as a seductress, but stops short of saying, it’s her fault her brother is dead.

Britta was instrumental in helping her see the situation with greater clarity and releasing some of the grief, by questioning her on whether there were any signs that her brother would take his life, to which she replies, she had thought he was going through a phase. Then later, she realizes, he was going through a phase, it’s just that he didn’t allow himself the chance to grow out of it.

Britta also helped her realize her anger against Yvonne, that is tied to her grief as it is to the brothers death when Brita expresses concern for Yvonne. Ally becomes upset that Britta sees Yvonne as a victim of the situation.

During the story, Ally, like her brother is in a phase as well, and like him is in danger of being swept away or making a decision to move forward. In the book she hides behind her hair, behind her mother, stays at a distance of all the writers and keeps the interaction with everyone at a polite minimum.

Her grief is also causing her to float between scenes, like she floats to Yvonne’s house as an escape from the drama at her house never intending to actually use the key and go the house.

Then in the car, Ally describes a moment when she reaches the center, but takes her time to turn off the ignition, because she is floating, not moving forward, nor being decisive. She is cherishing the moment between her house and the writing center, because she is between two destinations, there is no interaction required of her, and no decision making which she has become incapable of making. Finally in the end, she moves out of her auto pilot mode, and her protective bubble of keeping everyone at arms length by seeing Yvonne for the scared and confused teenager she is and making a sudden decision to help her by looking for the ring.

Anonymous said...

What I took out of this story was that the river was symbolic of her life after her brother died. It said that on the surface the river looked lazy but underneath it was dragging her down. This parallels with the mention of how the family's house "never lapsed from its perfet tidiness and order" but the family is described as being melted into madness and disconnected from "the ordinary scale of gloom." Also Ally felt like she couldn't move in the river. After the death of her brother all of Ally's plans were put on hold and she hardly felt like she would be alright. However, when she turned back to look at Yvonne, she realized she had come a long way already, so why not keep truckin?? That's when she spots the ring, somethihng that's able to "catch the light" through all the gloom and turmoil, just as Hilda brought Ally new perspective and comfort. I also thought there was one more symbol involving the ring... it was in a crevice on a jagged stone. When Ally first met Hilda, she was kind of "jagged" you might say, and acted rude. How does that interpretation sound??

Pat said...

I agree a story needs a proper ending. Here is the one I envision:

Instinctively she reached for it. The water washed over it as she gently reclaimed it from the recess of lost forever. In the shimmering transition between water and air Ally held the now-burdensome symbol of the pain and the pleasure of Ryan and Yvonne's togetherness. In her half-open hand the flowing water jostled the ring seemingly giving it a life of its own. Like a small fish being released to a life anew, she let it go.

J. Stober said...

Just as there were countless women competing for the affection of The Guitar Player in the sub-plot, so are there three women competing for the memory of the dead Ryan: Mum, Ally and Yvonne. Mum and Ally are allies in their antipathy for the lower-class Yvonne. At the end, Ally and Yvonne actually run a race. Yvonne initiated the challenge by coming out to see Ally at the Writing Institute. Unlike Yvonne, the sharp-eyed Ally runs to win, and she does. To put it another way: Mum has no thought of getting clear of the dead guy's clutches. Yvonne pretends she wants to but doesn't know how. And Ally? She's on her way. A ring retrieved by a river maiden strikes a chord. I wish I had more culture so I could place it. Incidentally, there is no reason we have to buy into Ally's theory that Ryan's suicide was an accident of a normal phase he was going through. Hmm. That thought leads to an alternative interpretation. Maybe Yvonne is the only quasi-sane one in the bunch. The turbulence of her relationship with Ryan was her trying to get free while the crazy guy was still alive. Jeez, I hope she finds her way now. Maybe she will. She doesn't seem like the type who will spend the rest of her life trying to write a novel a la Hilda. (With her Literature degree and piles of reading, I fear Ally might.) One more random thought. I'm Canadian, and, believe me, we are all like Hilda. Hardly a day goes by that doesn't find me quibbling with a clerk over pricing. And every second friend's a vegan!