It’s 1967, and the branches of the sexual revolution reach beyond the borders of London. Forty-year-old Phyllis Fischer is married to Roger, a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office. Phyllis is “happy with her life” as a housewife, until Nicholas (Nicky), the twenty-twenty son of a family friend, comes to eat one summer evening. An illicit kiss between the two awakens the desire buried under homeliness: “Under the tranquil surface of suburbs, something has come loose.”
Free love adds a Sixties twist Anna Karenina. “If he does not want me, I will die,” Phyllis thought to herself. “Although she also knew that she would not really die, she went home and put macaroni cheese in the oven. And it would be worse. ”
The heart that wants what it wants, despite the brain’s better judgment, is one of Hadley’s great themes. Praised for elevating the “domestic novel” to literary fiction, her work often plots the shifting geometries of families (a May-to-December love triangle also appeared in her 2007 novel The Master Bedroom). Of course, love is never free. Aside from having to swallow her jealousy when Nicky sleeps around, the costs are borne primarily by Phyllis’ children – 15-year-old Colette and nine-year-old Hugh – when she leaves home without a forwarding address.
The ensuing upheaval mimics the societal shifts around them. “What I want to write is politics,” Hadley once said. “Not big politics, but small politics, the effect through individual lives of the external realities.” Nicky’s anti-Vietnam stance challenges the views that Phyllis absorbed from Roger, who served in World War II. When she made her first foray into Nicky’s apartment in the then bohemian Ladbroke Grove, she “has never seen so many colored faces before, anywhere in England”.
Phyllis understands “with a shock” that she can no longer rely on “the easy assurance of her class”. She gradually develops a friendship with Barbara, a Grenadian nurse. Barbara is denied the opportunity to do medical research and is instead assigned the worst works on the ward by her colleagues.
Phyllis’ freedom is in addition to the choices Jean, Nicky’s mother, had when she got stuck in her marriage 20 years earlier. Jean regrets that “she allowed herself to submit to an outward command as if it mattered; now that order itself was in any case crumbling, and all the sacrifices made to it turned out to be a scam ”. The suppression of her desires led to suicidal thoughts and “an enchantment in a rest house in the hills”.
In contrast, Colette, who is encouraged to transform herself when she is no longer under Phyllis’s shadow, takes some inspiration from her quest for freedom. After always assuming that university is in her future – “a path that stretches forward that she will inevitably have to plow” – Colette has now “seen that she can choose something else, if she only knows how”. The men, too, are prisoners of prescribed paths: Hugh’s idyllic childhood is cut short when he follows his fate by matriculating at his father’s boarding school.
The driving force behind Phyllis’ choices is less passion for Nicky than a quest to be free from the constraints of society. Revolutionary dreams remain unrealized even within the counterculture, let alone of the world as a whole. The men in Nicky’s entourage – artists and hippies drenched in weeds and ideology – are more interested in the idea of women liberation than liberated women. The dreams of the era are particularly poignant to read in a moment when Roe vs Wade is in jeopardy and structural racism continues. Sam, Phyllis’ black landlord, predicts that “when the white boys cut their long hair and went back to their careers, the blacks would still be left out”.
Hadley has created an aesthetic that inspires confidence, and the author’s free indirect style – perhaps informed by her dissertation on Henry James – allows us access to the characters’ inner lives. She is also an excellent portrait artist, portraying people with the smallest details. We understand Nicky in a moment of his refusal to wear a tie “partly because ties symbolized a uniformity he despised, and partly because he never mastered tying one” – after sneaking “shyly” to the school matron when the knot came loose. The deftly deployed little ones are often class signifiers: a world is contained in Phyllis’ mirror table, with its “cut toiletry set and her bottles of L’Air du Temps and witchcraft and cleansing milk”.
Free love is in my opinion not the strongest of Hadley’s eight novels. It lacks the symmetry of The London train (2011) and the devastating accidental rendering of the plot twist – both impossible and inevitable – of Late in the day (2019).
In comparison, the unraveling of Free love, following the revelation of a family secret “as fatally distorted as a Greek drama”, feels rushed. Doesn’t matter: a lavish stylist, Hadley is a writer for whom language trumps everything. Any publication of hers, whether of short or long fiction, is reason to feast for the sheer pleasure of prose.
Free love by Tessa Hadley Jonathan Cape, £ 16.99, 320 pages / HarperCollins, $ 26.99, 304 pages
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