Life's limitations are certainly on the mind of Lydia, whose husband, Zachary--an acclaimed London gallery owner--has taken ill and suddenly died. Zach's beaming circle of clients have no a clue at the high costs that have been exacted in Lydia's marriage. Compromises have been made that, over the years, have bled into the lives of best friends Christine and Alex.
Christine's voice opens Hadley's tale with the initial phone call from hysterical Lydia, taken among the prints and photographs and drawings on the walls of Christine's artist's studio. Zach has been the rock of this foursome. Now Zach is dead, and Lydia is unable to cope. Lydia has always had the air of a "disgruntled queen" but now looks "displaced and lost." Christine's strongest desire is to work, but amid the ink bottles and the twisted tubes of paint, work seems fraudulent, "the sticky project of her own vanity."
From the present to the past, Hadley captures Lydia and Christine's first encounter with Zachary while managing to change our perceptions in a "speeded-up evolution." Without Zachary, Alex and Lydia and Christine's lives are abruptly thrown into disorder: "of all of us, he's the one we couldn't afford to lose." Also thrown into chaos is Zach's daughter, Grace who is finishing her third year as an art student and is brought home from Manchester by Alex to Lydia and Zachary's converted parish rooms attached to the chapel that is now their art gallery.
The real question Late in the Day invites is not whether Lydia and Zach were ever happy but why Christine ever allowed her friend to connect to Zach, who was already married and lived in a gorgeous house in Kensal Rise. The children present themselves: Sandy, Alex's son by his first wife, their daughter Isobel, and Lydia's Grace. Hadley spends much capital exploring Grace and Isobel's friendship as their mothers attempt to negotiate the chasm between martyr and mistress. It isn't clear if Lydia specifically wants to face life without Zachary. She certainly craves more than widowhood: she feels it in her stomach, "hot and tensed and hard...a terrible pain." Christine, meanwhile, feels wrecked and lost, accustomed to leaning on Alex in times of crisis.
Initially I thought that Alex's choice would undermine the integrity of the novel, but then I understood it as Hadley's metaphor for marriage in a world where you're simply meant to hang onto each other through a succession of metamorphoses--or fail to. As Zachary's death draws Hadley's characters together, Lydia and Christine are ironically pulled further apart. Alex can't shake Lydia's manipulative ways. Lydia realizes that she has lived with "fatal passivity" as she tries to relinquish her own control over the path she's taken, begun perhaps when she married Zachary. Christine spills her secrets about her best friend. From their heady summer days revolving around the Founder's Commemoration, Christine and Lydia are shown to be the "true dissenters." Neither was conventional, and both chose patterns of relationships that looked almost like their mother's marriages: dependent, and sheltered, women who lived their secret lives inside "the strong shell of their husbands' worldliness and competence."
The story flows along in typical Hadley style; she's a master at deconstructing a typically intimate domestic scene. I loved the sections with Grace and Isobel. In the aftermath of Zach's funeral, Grace stays at Isobel's flat, throwing herself into partying and drinking and confiding in strangers, telling them all her sorrows and spilling over with noisy grief after bringing men home with her. Lydia is mostly set adrift without Zachary, lost in chaos until she enters a forbidden terrain with Alex.
The novel has all the weaving of a domestic comedy of manners combined with the horrors of a sudden death, the ache of loss and the intrinsic complications that come with sexual infidelity. Art and poetry are essential, with Christine's paintings and Alex's poetry providing a looking glass into Hadley's characters' lives. Could Zachary have been reading Alex's poems in the days before he died? In a story where the past is laid over the future and the future laid over the past, the long-buried passions of Alex and Lydia collide.