sat 13/07/2024

Tessa Hadley: Free Love review - the Sixties, the suburbs and the hippie dream | reviews, news & interviews

Tessa Hadley: Free Love review - the Sixties, the suburbs and the hippie dream

Tessa Hadley: Free Love review - the Sixties, the suburbs and the hippie dream

Mummy takes a trip in Tessa Hadley's new novel

All you need is love: Tessa Hadley© Sophie Davidson

Free Love opens in 1967 and remains within that heady era throughout; no flashbacks, no spanning of generations as in Hadley's wonderful novels The Past or Late in the Day. Phyllis, aged 40, is a suburban housewife, C of E, deeply apolitical and a contented mother of two.

She likes L’Air du Temps perfume (one of Hadley’s Sixties tropes: Jill, a character in The Past, also uses it), loves the panelled oak doors in her hallway, and has a special bond with her nine-year-old son, Hugh.

Hadley’s eighth novel is as absorbing as any of her other fiction, with complex family secrets, brilliant insights into children on the cusp of puberty or adulthood, and lush descriptions of nature: “The night was ripe with the earth’s exhalations: mushroom-pungent leaf mould, hint of reeking fox, foliage sour from fermenting all day in the sun.” But aspects of Phyllis's character remain elusive, eclipsed, perhaps, by the atmosphere of the turbulent decade and its politics.

Her relationship with Hugh is teasing and close, beautifully conveyed. "This happiness can’t last,’” Phyllis thought.” And indeed, Hugh is set to go off to boarding school soon, the same one his father went to. So far, so conventional. But this is not the only reason that her bond with Hugh is doomed. A few pages in, Phyllis is in the dark garden, passionately kissing an anarchic young man who’s come to dinner, the son of some friends of her unshowy, serious husband, Roger, who has a brilliant career at the Foreign Office.

She’s amazed – she imagined that Nicky, the young man, thought she was old and repulsive. But no. '“He’s my lover,' she thought with finality." And once she tells herself something, "no reasoning or evidence to the contrary could shake it." Which, it must be said, is handy for the plot-line.

Most of the book takes place in the urban setting of Ladbroke Grove, where Nicky bandies the word “fascist” around with impunity and writes articles about RD Laing for the underground press in his unprepossessing pad in a crumbling art-deco building “where anyone who was anyone in the counter-culture had stayed.” It's soon to be demolished to make room for the Westway. Phyllis visits him here every Wednesday for passionate sex. Some months later, one evening in the middle of a dull Christmas party, she leaves Roger and her children – there’s also Colette, a brainy teenager – to move in with Nicky permanently, leaving no forwarding address. For her, the Sixties have begun. But would her assimilation into this alternative universe really progress so seamlessly?

free loveHugh is the first to see that his mother has changed. “You smell funny,” he tells her after the first assignation, noticing that she’s removed her wedding ring. After that, he begins to detach from her. With perverse – and not entirely convincing – logic, she sees her affair as compensating for the loss of Hugh. Roger’s pretty cool about her absence too (his character is more nuanced than that iof Phyllis), which gives pause for thought.

But Phyllis mainly manages to block out thoughts of her family, though on Christmas Day, alone in Notting Hill while Nicky visits his mother, she does feel “nauseous with shame”. This blank, impervious quality makes her less interesting than some of Hadley’s more subtle characters, and the sensible Grenadian nurse, Barbara Jones, who lives down the hallway, provides a welcome contrast to Phyllis’s woolly idealism about Nicky and her future.

In her new hippie persona, Phyllis abandons her couture dresses and careful hairstyle, goes barefoot on Nicky’s dirty floors, learns to roll joints on album covers and listens to Bob Dylan for the first time, imagining herself as a sad-eyed lady of the lowlands. She is, she thinks, no longer “charming or performing but mysterious, withheld.” Words like turn on, drop out, get high, “were a threshold, she passed across them to new realms of experience.”

But it’s Colette, the complicated 15-year-old daughter, whose loss of her mother propels her into more intriguing realms: it makes her more popular at school, for a start. She too is determined to change her life, which at first means getting contact lenses – previously she'd resisted her mother's constant campaign to make her more attractive – and losing weight. She is amazed when a man in the pub stares “at the heavy breasts which she had up to that moment so hated and resented”. Could she, the object of a man’s interest, she wonders, be the same child she had been yesterday? “She looked around at the children’s books on her shelves… as if they were suddenly strange to her, and piquant, because she had outgrown them all at once.”

By the end, Colette seems in some ways more sophisticated than her mother. She’s unimpressed by Nicky’s part in the Paris ’68 manifestations. “Whenever these revolutionaries talked about the workers they had a silly solemnity, like a girl with a crush,” she thinks, bringing to mind Jill in The Past and her feckless husband Tom, another half-baked Sixties revolutionary who eagerly mans the Paris barricades. Jill is a more complex character than Phyllis, with a hard-won pragmatism, while Phyllis, to the end, remains naïve and optimistic. “She had sidestepped her fate. More adventures awaited her, she was still alive.”

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