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The Master Bedroom    by Tessa Hadley order for
Master Bedroom
by Tessa Hadley
Order:  USA  Can
Henry Holt, 2007 (2007)

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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

The Master Bedroom, a beautifully written novel with well-developed characters, is funny, tragic, interesting, and outrageous. Kate Flynn, who has been a university professor in London for twenty years, returns to Cardiff, Wales to the old family mansion where she grew up, to take care of her elderly mother Billie. Billie has been acting confused and forgetful and needs more care than the cleaning service, cleverly named Buckets and Mops, can provide. Anyway, Kate has gotten bored with her life and taking care of her elderly mother sounds like a welcome change.

Kate's life changes in ways she could never have imagined. The strain of living with her confused mother combined with the semi-isolation - away from all of her London connections and career - leave her bereft and lonely. Carol, her best friend since childhood - who like Kate has never married - never left the city where they grew up and is busy with her engrossing job but glad to have Kate nearby again. But newer relationships are problematic.

Kate runs into Carol's younger brother David at a concert and resumes a friendship with him that struggles with all of the old memories of childhood encounters as well as a new, unwelcome attraction. David, after all, is married to Suzie, with whom he has two children, and he is also the father of a seventeen year old son, Jamie, from his first marriage. Kate has forgotten what a small town Cardiff can be and soon becomes involved with all of Carol's family, especially David and Jamie.

The story unfolds mostly through the eyes of Kate, David and Jamie. They are all struggling with their lives in different ways, and we become deeply acquainted with each of them. David's marriage has mysterious problems, and Jamie is trying to grow up, ready for university but not sure he wants to take that next leap in his life just yet. As Kate struggles to make a new life for herself, David is watching Suzie turn away from him in strange, new ways, and Jamie falls hard for Kate. He begins to visit her, using the excuse of her acquaintance with his mother, David's first wife. Jamie doesn't really know much about his mother. She committed suicide when he was a baby and his father won't talk about it. From the first conversation, Jamie pursues Kate with visits to the old house, ingratiating himself with Billie, who tries to make him her piano student.

A complex book, written with such style, cannot help but have an effect on the reader. You think about it after it's finished and the novel becomes better in retrospect than it seemed while you were reading it. I would have said, while reading it, that I didn't like the characters much and found the plot somewhat incredible. The crush that Jamie has on a woman so much older than him is improbable. But all of these characters are strangely endearing, and I grew increasingly interested in them and what they were going through. Finally, The Master Bedroom is a satisfying book, one I won't forget for a long time.

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