I had never read Tessa Hadley before and was all set to begin with her earlier novel The Past widely considered to be the best entry point into her work. But the best laid plans often go awry, and her newest novel Free Love is what I wanted to read first simply because I was fascinated by its premise. Anyway, long story short, I loved this novel.
Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings.
The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh.
When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome their guest who they have invited home for dinner. The person they are expecting is a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends. The Fischers have a well-appointed, cozy home, artistically decorated by Phyllis who has a flair for these things and is now well ensconced in her suburban life. In contrast to Phyllis’ flighty, flirty personality, Roger is more stable and well-grounded, but the couple seems to get along fairly well. They do have their disagreements though. One point of contention revolves around their son’s education. Roger believes that a stint in a boarding school will go a long way in shaping up Hugh’s character and career, while Phyllis sees no reason why his current life must be disrupted.
Phyllis is close to her son, but shares a volatile bond with Colette, her awkward but intelligent teenaged daughter. In terms of physique, Colette is ungainly but what she lacks in looks, she more than makes up for in intelligence.
Her father’s intelligence was so much stronger than her mother’s, Colette thought; yet it was the slippery labyrinth of her mother’s mind – illogical, working through self-suggestion and hunches according to her hidden purposes – which was closed to Colette, and therefore more dangerous for her.
And then there is Nicky, who has not turned up at the Fischer residence yet. Nicky does not look forward to the evening at all; he has merely accepted the dinner invitation on his mother’s insistence. He finally announces his presence at the Fischer home, terribly late, just when the family has already started dinner without him. Nicky, with his revolutionary bent and left leaning outlook, is contemptuous of the world in which the Fischers move, their bourgeoisie living and staid, conservative ideas. Dinner is a fraught affair with Nicky openly airing his radical views, and while Colette remains sullen throughout the meal, Roger is keenly interested in what Nicky has to say. Phyllis is her old, flirty self but suddenly becomes self-conscious when Nicky inadvertently makes her feel her age.
It’s only when the party embarks on a bizarre expedition to retrieve a neighbour’s son’s slipper from the pond that things take a quick and unexpected turn. Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately setting in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.
What had been unthinkable yesterday, now felt inevitable and necessary: she saw that she was capable of being two contradictory things at once, wife and lover. The two sides existed as separate sealed chambers, both were necessary to her, only she had the key to both – how could that harm anyone?
Phyllis and Nicky, enamoured with each other, become immersed in a passionate affair, despite the significant age gap. For Nicky, with a trail of desultory, half-hearted relationships behind him, sex with an experienced woman like Phyllis is a revelation. For Phyllis, whose sex life with Roger borders on the awkward, the affair with Nicky is bracing and gives her a sense of liberation.
His lascivious uninhibited gaze was as arousing, almost, as if he touched her. She had never been seen like this before, or allowed herself to be seen, without any ironic deflection: not with Roger, nor that other man. Getting his pleasure, Nicky was so heedless and unconstrained – so that she, too, was unconstrained, and didn’t care how he saw her. Married love was too kind, she thought, it hovered on the threshold of this knowledge and never went inside, never took the necessary liberties.
But what is the price that Phyllis will pay for this newfound sliver of freedom?
Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, new beginnings, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family.
Phyllis becomes increasingly drawn to Nicky’s bohemian world which is a stark contrast to her dull, orderly existence where beauty and polite conversations take precedence over ideas and new ways of thinking.
As the novel progresses, Phyllis’ relations with her family, unsurprisingly, undergo a sea of change; with the children, particularly, it reverses. Her son, the apple of her eye, disapproving of the path Phyllis has chosen, becomes increasingly estranged from her. Colette, visibly shaken by the breakdown of her family, feels unmoored and adrift, and yet slowly begins to bond with her mother. Roger is angry with Phyllis for throwing him into an embarrassing situation, and puts on an impenetrable exterior that only alienates his children. Struck by the difficulty in communicating his feelings, he struggles to cope, but then finds solace in an unexpected quarter.
Based on the premise alone, Free Love could easily have been a run-of-the-mill kind of a novel, but it is not…it’s quite the opposite. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.
The characters are well-developed, fully realized…they are flawed and deeply humane as they struggle to navigate an uncertain future fuelled by the disintegration of their old world. Various facets of their personalities – desires, fears, hopes, secrets – are so sensitively presented, but Hadley never judges them. The point is not to dwell on their faults, as much as it is to delicately depict the differing perceptions of each of her characters as they grapple with a common dilemma. Hadley’s warmth, wisdom and understanding are on full display here as she beautifully renders the turmoil raging in her characters’ inner and outer lives.
In a nutshell, Free Love, is a profound meditation on the importance of a meaningful existence, and how that definition can mean different things to different people. Highly recommended.
9 thoughts on “Free Love – Tessa Hadley”
Sometimes it’s the approach that makes all the difference, isn’t it? Glad Hadley’s writing made the book all the richer. Wonderful review.
Thank you, Mallika! I absolutely agree, this would have been a very ordinary novel in the hands of a lesser writer.
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Lovely review Radz, I’m looking forward to this one, all the more now for having read your promising review, it does sound like a good one to sink into.
Thank you, Claire. I really loved this book, so wonderful and wise. I’ll look forward to your thoughts once you’ve read it.
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I finally read it and found it quite thought provoking despite a slow start. My first Hadley novel too, not sure how she’s passed us by all these years.
Indeed, she was always on the fringes all these years, an author I must read sometime, but its only last year that I finally got around to her. Free Love was my first Hadley novel too and I will be reading more. Nothing probably new in terms of the territory she covered, but I felt I was in assured hands, it was an intelligently written novel. I’ve heard great things about “The Past” as well, its supposed to be even better.