A woman embraces change in the 1960s in Tessa Hadley's novel 'Free Love'
For two decades, Tessa Hadley's quietly nuanced fiction has explored the intricate web of marriages, lovers, friends and family in which people entangle themselves. In her eighth novel, she weaves a plot that ensnares multiple generations and raises timeless questions about the risks worth taking for self-fulfillment.
Free Love is set in London and its suburbs in the pivotal year of 1967-68, when Phyllis Fischer, an apparently happy 40-year-old wife and mother, is drawn into a sexually and intellectually liberating relationship with a much younger man. She soon realizes that perhaps she wasn't so content after all. But the era's new, freewheeling ethos wreaks havoc on her family, as does Phyllis' choice of liberator, who turns out to be far more inappropriate than she had imagined.
Hadley, who so brilliantly captures her characters' every twinge of emotion, is also drawn to innovative structures that highlight how the past extends in unexpected ways into the future, with often serious repercussions. The London Train (2011), still my favorite of her novels, is a diptych of two seemingly separate stories that turn out to be mirror images of each other and hinge at a crucial meeting point on the eponymous train. The Past (2016), which sandwiches a flashback to 1968 between two sections set in the present, unpacks the psychological baggage hauled around by members of a family who have gathered to decide the fate of their grandparents' decaying house.
Free Love runs along a more straightforwardedly chronological timeline: It begins with preparations for a dinner to host the 20-something son of old family friends and ends not quite two years later. But it's a recursive story in which apples don't fall far from trees and children unwittingly repeat the sins of their parents — or mutations of those sins. Jumps in time and between various characters lend the narrative the structure of a handheld fan whose folded panels each reveal different crucial bits of information, often from decades earlier.
Hadley efficiently sets the scene and demonstrates her keen sense of place. We meet Phyllis, the petite, pretty wife of Roger Fischer, a thoughtful senior civil servant in the Foreign Office, at her dressing table looking out over her garden on a "drowsy suburban evening." References to a tennis club and a housekeeper evoke a sense of privilege, while mention of a "petticoat" and a dinner menu that includes pork terrine glazed in aspic alert us that it's not the 2020s.
Phyllis' 9-year-old son, Hugh, is outside playing with neighborhood children. But he's soon to be sent away to the boarding school his father attended, marking the end of his innocent youth and his close relationship with his mother. His 15-year-old sister, Colette, "a lonely tortured intellectual," has inherited neither her mother's good looks nor her vivacious, flirtatious personality.
Phyllis, "an easy person, easily made happy, glad to make others happy," is said to be "pleased with her life." But a few pages later Hadley adds, in reference to the joy elicited by her beautiful son, "This happiness can't last, Phyllis thought."
Their guest, Nicky Knight, is an aspiring writer recently out of college. He shows up more than an hour late, drunk, drenched and disparaging the spoils of capitalism. Phyllis begins to look at "the whole domestic edifice" of her life differently, through his eyes — "the whole deadly enticement of a bourgeois life, ordered and upholstered and bathed in warm light, smelling of dinner."
Their awkward meal is mercifully interrupted by just the kind of scene Hadley loves — and has deployed before: a wild search in the dark countryside for a missing person or item (in this case a child's leather boot) in which people bounce up against one another in life-changing ways, like something out of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Under the placid surface of suburbia," Hadley writes, "something was unhinged."
Later, when the whole Fischer family has come unhinged, a second nighttime bacchanalia in this tightly constructed book — a rock concert on the site where a block of flats has been razed to make way for new construction — leads teenaged Colette into a sort of inverted version of her mother's radical plunge.
Free Love revisits several common literary tropes, including the runaway wife, December-May and May-December relationships, and secrets that come back to bite. But with its carefully wrought contrasts between women with the guts "to be shameless, careless, frank" versus one who, decades earlier, was not, Free Love is a fresh, moving evocation of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
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