Book review: Free Love, by Tessa Hadley

The tale of a highly conventional 1960s housewife who is unexpectedly swept up in the sexual revolution, Free Love perfectly encapsulates an era of rapid societal change, writes Kirsty McLuckie
Tessa Hadley PIC: Berenice Bautista/AP/ShutterstockTessa Hadley PIC: Berenice Bautista/AP/Shutterstock
Tessa Hadley PIC: Berenice Bautista/AP/Shutterstock

Free Love examines what happened when the late 1960s sexual revolution going on amongst the young artists and writers of London migrated to the suburbs. In particular, it uses the explosion of one family’s domestic setup to draw a fascinating portrait of the politics, manners and morals at the heart of a declining empire in a period of rapid societal change.

Phyllis Fischer is the dutiful 40-year-old wife of Roger. He saw distinguished service in the war, now works in the Foreign Office and is a devoted father, if a rather distant husband. They live a conventional, stable life with their children, bookish teenager Colette and eight-year-old Hugh.

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The family hosts a dinner for Nicky, a free-thinking socialist and would-be writer in his early 20s. The son of old friends of the Fischers, ostensibly there on his mother’s recommendation for career advice from Roger, he turns up late, half drunk, and doesn't disguise his disdain for their lives and values.

Free Love, by Tessa HadleyFree Love, by Tessa Hadley
Free Love, by Tessa Hadley

Their excruciating meal is interrupted by a phone call from a neighbouring mother, who bossily tasks Phyllis with retrieving her child’s shoe from their garden pond, and in the darkness and giddiness of the expedition, Nicky and Phyllis share a passionate kiss.

This episode ignites something in Phyllis, with dizzying abandon she embarks on a course of action which causes upheaval to all their lives. Her reaction is one of lust, and the ensuing physical relationship is described in beautifully sensuous terms.

She goes from being: “pleased with her life” to stating of Nicky: “If he won’t have me then I’ll die.” Although she does admit ruefully: “She knew that she wouldn’t really die, she’d go home and put macaroni cheese in the oven. And that would be worse.”

This stiletto-sharp humour rounds out these fascinating characters. Nicky is described as eschewing neckties, partly as a political statement, and partly because he isn’t very good at tying them and had to get the matron at his boarding school to do it for him. The description perfectly encapsulates his idealism, immaturity, pomposity and incompetence. It also begs the question as to why Phyllis would pursue such an inadequate man – is it a sexual awakening or a subconscious act to rid herself of a life she fell into through convention?

The effects on her children ring true. Colette, the lumpen, bespectacled teenager who resembles her father rather than her beautiful mother, reinvents herself. Meanwhile, Hugh tells his school friends that his mother has died.

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The narrative is beautifully pinpointed in the era with evocative descriptions of fashion, food and furniture and the political overtones that can be attached to each. From the stolid Victorian suburban townhouse of the Fischers, the action moves to the crumbling Art Deco building where Nicky lives in a bedsit, surrounded by pot smokers, artists and immigrants. His well-bred mother inhabits an inherited country house on her own, her husband having set up house in London with his mistress, refusing to pay for the upkeep of their moat.

Amongst the chaos of Swinging London is Barbara, a trainee nurse from Grenada who lives in a neighbouring bedsit to Nicky. She seems the only one with moral certainty, order and a work ethic. On hearing of Phyllis and Nicky’s relationship: “Barbara looked away from her, making a clicking, disdainful noise with her tongue. - A grown woman. You should have more sense.”

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She has ambitions to become a doctor, and inhabit her own office lined with bookshelves, but instead she is given the dirtiest jobs on the wards. She is a brilliant counterpoint to the other female characters, being the only one whose behaviour is not influenced by the male gaze; in her case it is racial prejudice that diminishes her.

Towards the end of the narrative there is a shocking revelation which suggests that the lives described are far more intertwined than previously suspected. Hadley writes compellingly fascinating characters viewed from every angle, perfectly encapsulating an era of change.

Free Love, by Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Cape, 312pp, £16.99

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