Free Love by Tessa Hadley

Nothing Free About It

relationshipsAfter seeing this title on a few end of year Top Fiction Reads for 2022, this was one of the first books I chose, to get back into the reading rhythm. Perhaps for that reason, it took a little while to get into, but once it reached the first significant turning point, the plot became more interesting and surprising and the choices the author made, much more thought provoking. It would make an excellent book club choice.

In essence, 40 year old Phyllis – who was living a conventional life as a housewife with two children, her husband Roger working at the Foreign Office – steps out of the submissive role she has been wed to, when a friends’ son comes to visit. Prior to this moment she hadn’t appeared to be frustrated with her life.

“In fact she was easy, an easy person, easily made happy, glad to make others happy. She was pleased with her life. The year was 1967.”

The encounter leads to numerous consequences, increasingly dramatic, that will affect everyone in the family. Our housewife leaves her middle class, manicured English lawn suburb for a rundown, seedy apartment building in Ladbroke Grove, teeming with diversity, creativity, and people living in the moment.

A Housewife Acting on a Crazy Impulse. Really?

Free Love Tessa Hadley Sixties fashion UtopiaIn the initial chapters, it was difficult to believe. Every reader will bring to their reading of the story, their own imagining of how this mother could abandon all for something that feels like it will be fleeting.

But then you slowly accept it, recalling the era in which it was set, knowing there was a whole other way of living and being in the 1960’s, a revolution against convention and authority, a risk taking utopian fever spreading its tentacles among the young and not so young. A time bomb, but still.

Colette, Not Yet Colette

The teenage daughter Colette is the more tortured soul, an astute observer, a lonely intellectual who read everything, though refused to read the novelist her mother said she was named after.

“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.”

Colette Reading

              The Other Colette

While we may feel sorry for the children – the son was always going to be sent away to boarding school, an interesting juxtaposition, to set side by side, twin forms of abandonment – it is interesting to see how the relationship between mother and daughter evolves under the new circumstance of their lives.

Colette starts skipping school.

“When she got to London Bridge she put her satchel and uniform in a left-luggage locker. All she did in the city was walk around in the crowds, pretending to be absorbed and purposeful like everyone else. She went to browse in certain bookshops, in Carnaby Street she bought tinted sunglasses, underground magazines and cones of incense from stuffy little shops, also henna to dye her hair at home. Sometimes she screwed up her courage to ask for a glass of barley wine in a pub, then sat alone defiantly to drink, reading.”

Honesty versus Secrecy

It was interesting to imagine a conventional housewife having such courage or impulsivity to do what she did. The choices Phyllis makes are surprising and daring, and just when we think she is the only one capable of making such counter conventional choices, there is another twist in the story.

It becomes a story about consequences, those that are dared lived out in the open, versus those that have been hidden. Then it gets really interesting. It makes you wonder, should those secrets be kept or shared? One can never predict the consequences of either route, but this story attempts to pit one against the other.

It reminded me of the experience of reading Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife.

Coming Full Circle

The ending is more poignant than conclusive, it reiterates the messiness of real lives and the power of forgiveness, the benefit of setting aside judgement, of being true to oneself without having to reject the other.

“Phyllis had been braced to defend herself against her husband. On her way to meet him, she’d summoned an idea of his authority, implacable and punitive, mixed up with his role in the world of Establishment power. Now she was taken aback by how he bent his head before her, opening himself so easily; his kindness drew one sob out of everything loosened and raw inside her.”

An enjoyable and thought provoking read ad an author I’d be happy to read more of. Have you read any of Tessa Hadley’s novels?

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for providing an ARC via Netgalley.

Further Reading

NPR review –A woman embraces change in the 1960s in Tessa Hadley’s novel ‘Free Love’ by Heller McAlpin

Guardian review: sexual revolution in 60s suburbia by Michael Donkor

Interview with Lisa Allardice: Tessa Hadley: ‘Long marriages are interesting. You either hang on or you don’t’

Guardian Short Story, Dec 18, 2022 : Juana the Mad – A chance encounter at a Christmas party churns up buried memories in this exclusive tale by the prize-winning novelist.

Tessa Hadley, Author

Free Love London based fiction A9Tessa Hadley is a British author of 8 novels, short stories and nonfiction. Born in Bristol in 1956, she was 46 when she published her first novel, Accidents in the Home, which she wrote while bringing up her 3 sons and studying for a PhD.

Her writing focuses on women, families and relationships – what she has called “the intricate tangle of marriage, divorce, lovers, close friends, children and stepchildren – the web people create for themselves”.

She reviews regularly for the London Review of Books and is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Granta. Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, her special interests including Jane Austen, Henry James, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen.

“I love the irresponsibility of short stories. Writing short, you create with a free hand. Each new development you imagine can be drawn in to the story without consequences, with all the lightning-bolt effect of a first thought, no requirement to elaborate a hinterland. A quickly scribbled indication of background can stand in for a whole city, a whole past. And yet I can’t stop wanting to write novels too. Novels see things through. The reader is in for the long term; the writer is in for a sizeable stretch of her life. In a novel there’s not only the dazzle of the moment, but also the slow blooming of the moment’s aftermath in time, its transformation over and over into new forms. I love to write about the present, and the past that’s recent enough for me to remember. The fiction writer’s ambition is modest and overweening: to take the imprint of the passing moment, capture it in the right words, keep it for the future to read.” Tessa Hadley, Author Statement

15 thoughts on “Free Love by Tessa Hadley

  1. Thanks so much for this review of Free Love which I also read this autumn. I enjoyed the depiction of the Ladbroke Grove scene, and the way in which Phyllis’ exit broke the whole family apart. I found the way in which the children’s reactions were depicted really authentic and moving- and enjoyed how Roger’s story- and backstory- then evolved. A clever plot twist showing the messiness of human lives as you say. However I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as my favourite Tessa Hadley- The Past, reviewed at Peak Reads.

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    • I wasn’t even sure I was going to continue with it initially, it seemed so irrational, but the Ladbroke Grove scene felt very real, chaotic and Phyllis seemed to find her role there.
      I found all the reactions really interesting, including my own, which is what makes it so thought provoking.
      This was my first read of her novels, an author I wasn’t aware of, so thank you for sharing your favourite.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I found this a really helpful review, as are Mandy’s comments> I’m very much Colette’s generation, and grew up in a much more conventional family (in some ways), and I’ll be interested to revisit ’60s outlooks and mores through her eyes.

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  3. It was the early 70’s when my mom abandoned her kids for a Greek guy 14 years her junior that she met on a train. I should write a book about it lol. I’ve read ‘The Past’ and short stories. She’s a phenomenal writer–I admire her talent for juggling multiple characters at once.

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  4. I’ve had a mixed experience with Hadley’s novels but enjoyed the one before this, The Past. Not entirely sure I find the premise of Free Love believable given Phyllis’ apparent lack of frustration with her old life but you’ve piqued my interest, Claire.

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  5. I can see why you suggest this for a book club with so much to explore. The potential changes in women’s lives at the time are especially intriguing – an almost unheard freedom, but still basically treated as subordinate to men and coping with consequences of the changes. I like the way you have written about your reactions as the story is told.

    No novels yet, but I have read some of her short stories and liked those. I think a collection of her stories may be coming out later this year.

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  6. “ The web people create for themselves”. With the increase of divorce…multiple sets of (step) children, grandparents etc…this is a great description of what many families are dealing with. I cannot imagine having the courage of leaving a family for…something that is usually fleeting. Thanks for the summation that sparks my interest in reading Tessa Hadley. I’ll try to find a short story first in the New Yorker…just to see what her writing is like.

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  7. I’m really looking forward to reading this, Claire – all the more so as a result of your review. (There’s a copy in my reading pile, so I hope to get to it later this year.) Hadley writes so well about relationships – chance encounters, affairs, individuals crossing boundaries and experiencing new things – and this novel sounds very much in that vein. Your comparison with Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife is an interesting one, too. I can see how it might spring to mind…

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  8. I really want to read this, I keep being told she’s like Iris Murdoch and keep reading that she is, too, so I need to explore her. I fancy the one with a train in the title more than this one, really, but I expect I’ll come to it in due course!

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