‘Free Love’ review: She leaves home

Tessa Hadley, author of eight novels and three collections of short stories, has few rivals for depicting the dynamics of families and the intricate weaving of emotional affiliations between members. She is a master at capturing the fleeting thoughts and memories, the propelling energy of desire and the tentative reasoning that make up the inner being. Its plots, while often marked by startling revelation, are not where the dramatic action is; that happens in the characters themselves. Her 2015 novel ‘The Past’ is her strongest work in this regard, especially in its depiction of children’s inner worlds, but her current novel ‘Free Love’ addresses the agility of this work by capturing thought and feelings in flight. In this case, we have an English family in a moment of social upheaval that is coming back to life, breaking away from each other and from the conventions of the past.

Free love: a novel

By Tessa Hadley

harpist

304pages

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The novel begins in 1967 with Phyllis Fischer dressing neatly for a small dinner party she and her husband, Roger, are hosting that evening. He is a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; she is a housewife and a devotee of the gracious life. They live in a charming Arts-and-Crafts house in an affluent London suburb and are parents to 15-year-old Colette and 9-year-old Hugh. A guest will come: Nicholas “Nicky” Knight, a young man in his twenties, the son of old friends of Roger’s parents. It’s the first time the Fischers have seen him since he was a kid, and we wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the last. Arrived more than an hour late, he is a sloppy, rude and unbearable moron. But Phyllis, 40, is viscerally drawn to him, drawn to his messiness, by “his long hair, his scruffy flared pants, his unbuttoned, unironed shirt, his drawling mockery, his thin smiles, his offensive opinions, all delightfully offensive”.

free love

By Tessa Hadley

Harper, 287 pages, $26.99

Because it’s the 60s. While Phyllis is more adventurous than members of the previous generation – she has Elizabeth David on the shelf and garlic in the pantry – something more powerful is in the air . She suddenly feels that in leading her comfortably ordered bourgeois existence, she is missing out on life itself. She also wonders for the very first time if she’s really gotten too old to possess sexual looks: although “she’s started joking recently about becoming an old woman. . . It hadn’t seriously occurred to him, in his deepest consciousness, that anything had changed or should ever change; she would take it for granted that deep inside her her sexual self would continue forever, a nugget of radioactive matter charged with its power, irreducible.

She didn’t have to worry. Briefly alone with Phyllis, Nicky spontaneously kisses her and she responds vigorously. Driven by passion, she decides that he will be her lover, and so on. Every Wednesday she takes the train to London to visit him in his squalid bed-keeper in Ladbroke Grove. Run down, strewn with rubbish and mutilated by demolitions in preparation for the construction of an elevated motorway, the neighborhood intimidated her on her first trip: “She had never seen so many colorful faces before, anywhere in England.” Frightened, she feels “ostentatious in her beige raincoat, her beige shoes, her pretty mauve floral blouse and her silk scarf, chosen to be carefree and cheerful. . . It hadn’t occurred to her to imagine wearing them in an underprivileged neighborhood like this, where their expensive elegance seemed blatant and misguided. Later, as the dates continue, she revels in the medium and manages to defend herself by acknowledging the full moral significance of her infidelity: “She knew that her betrayal of her husband and children was wrong, but from same impersonal, dull way she knew from school about the Treaty of Vienna or the abolition of the Corn Laws.

Without remorse, she is no less haunted by the specter of her other life, “conscious these Wednesdays of her own absence, like a ghost in all these rooms that she once had so well fitted out. Without her, the place collapsed. . . no one lit the lamps she had placed around the rooms to diffuse their welcoming glow; everything was dark in the glare of the main light. Phyllis gets annoyed to be the only one cleaning the place, but this feeling of doubleness stings her, the abandoned life that goes on in her absence and the clandestine life that she occupies. Eventually – and impulsively – she leaves her family, leaves her old life, and moves in with Nicky.

There are consequences, many and unforeseen, but this novel is not there to punish anyone; in fact, it’s surprisingly nice; we have neither “Anna Karenina” nor “Madame Bovary” here. Phyllis’ sporadic feelings of guilt, bitter as they are, are balanced by her embrace of the ideas of freedom and self-fulfilment – notions that flourished so wildly in the 1960s: “There was no interest, she told herself, in thinking about the children. No redress could be made for what she had done. . . . The only thing to hold on to was that she really needed to change, to make sense of her betrayal. She had to believe that what Nicky was awakening in her was born out of life itself.

But what about Colette, Hugh and Roger? Their home has become a gloomy and uncomfortable place. Roger is stoic; Hugh, who has smelled a rat all along, is angry and heads to a boarding school where he informs everyone that his mother is dead. Colette, a very bright but rather stocky girl, longs to become a new person, to transform herself into those exotic and seemingly autonomous people she sees while strolling the streets of London: “The young women who passed her had exactly the look she wanted to look at herself: dangerous and impassive, in junk clothes, cultivating fascinating inner lives. Ms. Hadley perfectly captures this aspect of the 60s, the urgency of wanting to join the sprawling mystique and collective individuality of beautiful people, so “nonchalant and unaware, as if they had been initiated into a code that others could not . Pause.”

The novel becomes for a time that of Colette. She sheds her frumpy clothes, loses weight and adorns herself in pearls and fancy outfits. She stalks her mother and begins to gravitate towards the group of artists and writers – mostly – who make up her mother’s new friends. She attends a rowdy concert given in a desert, but somehow, overwhelmed by a reflective intelligence and an acerbic temperament, she does not manage to transform herself into a Dionysian: “All the others knew how to let themselves be dragged into this tumultuous river , while Colette looked from the dry land of herself. She felt the pull of the river and its powerful romance, as well as its terror, but didn’t know how to let it go.

It is only to set the conditions for the ensuing complexities, including one hell of a development that, as Roger observes, creates a “situation as fatally twisted as a Greek drama”. Told primarily from three perspectives – those of Phyllis, Colette and Roger – “Free Love” is a penetrating and extraordinarily subtle novel about an unsubtle era. From a distance, her cultivation may seem to have been only superficial: all sex, pot, disguises and political righteousness, but Mrs. Hadley shows how she wrought her changes in the lives and feelings of a handful of superbly conjured individuals.

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Christy J. Olson