April 8, 2013


By Tessa Hadley
~7200 words

A teenager in 1970s Britain has a sexual relationship with an enigmatic young man known as Valentine.

Fifteen-year-old Stella lives with her mother and stepfather but spends most of her free time speculating about sex with her friend Madeleine. When she meets Valentine (presumably a last name, which Stella shortens to Val) at the bus stop one morning, she feels an instant attraction that she describes as something "more than ordinary love: something like recognition." Val is only a year older than Stella but ages ahead in countercultural savvy: his wears his hair long, reads authors such as Beckett and Ginsberg, and smokes joints at eight in the morning. Stella is completely taken with him, and their relationship has all the markings of idyllic first love except for a disconcerting lack of sex, a mystery that is not explained until the final paragraphs.

The unique characters of "Valentine" are noteworthy in themselves, but it is the exceptionally crafted language that deserves special mention. The shimmering images and mesmerizing rhythm beautifully complement the sexual desire that oozes from the narrative:
I longed for the bus not to come. Proximity to his body—a glimpse, via his half-tucked shirt, of hollowed, golden, masculine stomach, its line of dark hairs draining down from the belly button—licked at me like a flame as we waited. [NB: This extraordinary passage is marred by what seems to be a missing article or possessive adjective before "hollowed." A rare TNY typo?]
Hadley is particularly adept at evoking smells, from the girls' dressing room with its "concentrated citrus-rot stink of female sweat" to Val's own "intricate musk, salty faintly fishy, sun-warmed even in winter—delicious to me." And her metaphors capture the extraordinary in the most ordinary of circumstances:
They [Val's parents] were polite with me, and their conversation as dully transactional as any in my house, yet in their clipped, swallowed voices they seemed to talk in code above my head.
The shape of the long, empty room seemed the shape of our shared imagination, spacious and open.
He stood in our neat kitchen with its blue Formica surfaces, as improbable—in his collarless shirt, waistcoat, and broken canvas shoes, with a scrap of vermillion scarf at his neck—as an exotic bird flown off course.
The story's weakness is the ending, where the reason for Val's muted sexual interest in Stella turns out to be a relationship he's been having with a male tutor. When a story can stand on the power of its language and characters, an O. Henry ending—and a cliched one at that—just seems a bit out of place. And as if that weren't enough, we get another twist in the final lines, where it's suggested that Stella is pregnant with Val's child.

Despite the unsatisfactory ending, "Valentine" is a pleasure to read for the unique characters and extraordinary mastery of language.


Reader poll: I found "Valentine" to be ___.


  1. I loved this one.

    But I don't think Valentine was having a relationship with the teacher so much as the teacher was taking advantage of him, his hopes, his need for validation, his confusion re: his sexuality, etc. And I sort of saw it coming for a while, without actually realizing that I was seeing it coming, if that makes sense. It's as if I knew what would happen, but I wasn't prepared to acknowledge it, so I was at simultaneously surprised and relieved when it finally played out the way I knew (on some level) it would. And that, to me, is the sign of a well-structured story.

    1. Yes, that makes sense. "Relationship" is the wrong term. At any rate, I felt like the author was fishing for a dramatic ending where one wasn't really needed. A great story nonetheless.