Stella, born in Britain in 1956, tells the story of her life in such richly detailed descriptions as to arouse the keenest empathy in readers.
Stella’s story begins as a child living with her mother. At that time, she is told her father died; she later discovers he instead left the family when she was a baby. Her mother works in an office to support them, so Stella spends a great deal of time with her grandmother, who lives nearby. Her life seems cozy. Stella and her mother are best friends and spend all their free time together, often nestled on the couch wrapped in warm blankets to watch their favorite television shows. Her life is rocked a bit when, at age eight or nine, she learns that her young relative Charlie died --- and rocked further when she finds out that the boy's father killed him. This experience is Stella's first inkling that her life will veer in unexpected directions.
"It is a remarkable feat of storytelling from Tessa Hadley, not only to portray an ordinary life in such a compelling and atmospheric manner as to render it unforgettable, but also to raise thought-provoking questions about how 'ordinary' any life actually is."
When Stella is 10 years old, she enjoys an overnight at her grandmother's. She awakens early and believes Nana must still be sleeping, so she decides she will surprise her mother by walking over to their apartment. On the way, she encounters her odd neighbor, Clive, who shows her a treasure of buttons he discovered on an empty lot. Stella is shocked at what she discovers at home. She leaves the two special buttons Clive gave her on the table at home to tell her mother she knows she has a man sleeping with her. Then, using coins she steals from her mother's purse, she rides the bus out to the rundown stable where she takes riding lessons. When Stella's mother inevitably arrives, she informs her that Nana has had a stroke. Later, she hands her the two buttons from that eventful day, saying only that they are pretty and never alluding to the "gotcha" element.
The next jog in Stella's life path arrives in the form of a stepfather named Gerry, who moves Stella and her mother from their flat into a house in a development. Stella anticipated with pleasure having a pink room all her own, but finds the house to be sterile and off-putting. Even worse, Stella and Gerry are constantly at odds, and Stella no longer feels close to her mother. She takes furtive revenge by snooping through Gerry's office (where she finds nothing of interest) and damaging her bedroom's wallpaper in hidden spots. She finds some consolation in a new friend, Madeleine, who lives next door.
Gerry insists that Stella must take entrance exams in order to get a scholarship for the Girls' High School, which she succeeds in doing. Happily, Madeleine also attends the same school, but the girls detest the school and hate the tyrannical teachers.
Stella’s life is set to change once again when her mother becomes pregnant. During an argument with Gerry while her mother is in the hospital, her stepfather yells at her, calling her an idiot. Somehow, this jars her brain into seeing the physics problem she has been struggling with in an entirely new way. She realizes that she is, indeed, a clever person. Intelligence may not make Stella's life any easier as she struggles into adulthood while dealing with thwarted hopes and dreams, but it enriches her account of her life, deepening it into an emotional read that feels like a reader's own first-hand experiences. It is a remarkable feat of storytelling from Tessa Hadley, not only to portray an ordinary life in such a compelling and atmospheric manner as to render it unforgettable, but also to raise thought-provoking questions about how "ordinary" any life actually is.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on March 21, 2014
- Publication Date: April 14, 2015
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 0062282883
- ISBN-13: 9780062282880