Free Love by Tessa Hadley: A provocative affair to remember

Book review: Bourgeois bubble bursts as 1960s sexual revoluion arrives in suburbia

Free Love
Author: Tessa Hadley
ISBN-13: 978-1787333673
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £16.99

In her latest work of quiet devastation, Tessa Hadley casts a Greek tragedy upon the lives of a conservative, suburban English family. It is 1967 but the Fischers have been preserved inside their bourgeois bubble, mostly oblivious to the societal revolutions happening beyond their front door.

That is, until the arrival of Nicholas, the 20-something son of an old friend, destabilises everything one hot summer evening. “With his age, and his freedom, and his good lucks” he unwittingly triggers a sexual and spiritual awakening in Phyllis Fischer that forces a familial upheaval that mirrors the radical transformations happening in society around them.

Every description in this novel is dynamic, infused with storytelling

Phyllis, the dutiful mother, we are told “still had an expectant, animated prettiness” despite being 40. Forty! If it galls to accept that society deemed it impossible for a younger man to find a woman of her age still attractive, Hadley placates the reader with her particularly skilful ironic detachment.

Few contemporary novelists are so adept with the seamless omniscient narration that seems second nature to Hadley. Her previous seven novels, including the critically acclaimed The Past (2015) and Late in the Day (2019), have established her very particular voice – one that is finely tuned to the micro details of life that capture something essential about the self.

If anything, Hadley is a victim of her past success. Having set the bar so high – Late in the Day is one of the finest novels by a British writer in recent years – her latest work does not quite reach her past heady heights. She has always excelled in the art of subtle storytelling, elevating the private plot of an ordinary life to something universal and staggering. Essential human stories, dissected and held up to the light, are Hadley’s tour de force.

On this occasion, however, the plotting of the narrative made its presence felt in explicit ways that weakened rather than strengthened its power. Free Love serves as a 20th-century homage to Anna Karenina – Roger, the cuckold husband of Phyllis, even draws a direct comparison to the novel in a moment of intertextuality that flickers with fine Hadley wit. Perhaps the inspiration, however, somewhat polluted Hadley’s authorly instinct.

What is undeniable, however, is her exquisite ability to exemplify Tolstoy’s poignant attention to detail. Every description in this novel is dynamic, infused with storytelling, so that all elements are working hard for their place on the page. She is masterful at capturing the authentic detail that unlocks a character or transports us to another place and time. At Christmas, “No-one but Phyllis could make angels chime work”; and Roger stands before the hallway mirror “appraising himself only for tidiness, not vanity”.

Hadley is devoted to the power of the material ephemera of life; how we decorate our homes, dress our bodies, the tools and accoutrements of life, and ornaments of the imagination. She draws our eye to a particular detail, and the details are revelatory.

The Fischer children – Colette, the bookish daughter modelled in her father’s image and likeness, and Hugh, the mother’s darling son – are electric on the page. The impact of the familial drama on the siblings is complex and astute but the exploration of the mother/daughter relationship is where Free Love truly delivers. Despite Colette’s resentment of her mother’s apparently selfish flight for freedom, it is what in turn sets Colette free from the trappings of their conventional life.

“Everything she said excited Colette and at the same time humiliated her. An old world was crumbling, and this new continent of experience, with its dizzily altered perspectives and intoxicating freedoms, should have been trackless – yet her mother’s footprint was on the sand everywhere ahead of her.” By defying expectations of how a “good mother” should behave, she unwittingly became exactly the sort of mother her daughter needed. “Now she saw that she could choose something different.”

Hadley demonstrates a particular talent for oscillating between the tiniest beat of life and the exaggerated hysteria of human emotion. As Colette pursues Nicholas the thought hits her, “If he won’t have me then I’ll die. Although she also knew that she wouldn’t really die, she’d go home and put macaroni cheese in the oven. And that would be worse”. It is Colette herself who later acknowledges that “hyperbole usually came closest to what one really felt”.

Emotion, however, is seldom allowed to gush on to the pages of a Hadley novel – her prose instead is refined, clean and precise. The briefest moment of hesitation by one character can trigger an atomic bomb of emotion in another’s subterranean layer without a crack appearing in their exterior. Her cool clarity leaves the reader feeling in the safest of hands.

Free Love is dedicated to the great questions of fate and freedom, familial duty and self-care, passion and commitment while resisting any impulse to tell a morality tale. By the end, new questions are arising for these characters that we have become so intimate with. As such, there is a residual feeling that their stories continue, and Hadley has the confidence not to wrestle them into a forced neat conclusion.

Written in the spirit of free love, the novel ultimately embodies its own theme. And we are left with a provocative affair to remember.