“Free Love” by Tessa Hadley

Genre: Domestic/Historical FictionFree Love
Publisher: Harper
Pub. Date: Feb. 1, 2022

If you are unfamiliar with the free love movement, Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” sums it up pretty well. Living through it as a teenager, I had mixed feelings about the movement, not unlike the mixed feelings I have about this novel. Set in late 60s “Swinging London,” which was the catch-all phrase for everything new, young, and modern. Hadley vividly writes about this time so well that I could almost see Jean Shrimpton walking around with Mick Jagger.  In this venue, the author explores the risks people take in pursuit of fulfillment and are they worth it. Hadley’s “Free Love” can be as engrossing, and as cringey, as the moment in history that inspired it.

Phyllis Fischer is a 40-year-old mother and wife who appears content with her cookie-cutter life in the suburbs. One night, a friend of her husband’s son, Nicky, comes to dinner. Still in his early twenties, he ignites the desire buried under all the years of Phyllis’ domestic life. One kiss and she finds herself in a relationship that brims with liberating sex and big ideas. “‘If he won’t have me then I’ll die,’ Phyllis thinks to herself. 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.” She leaves her husband and children to live in a cold water flat with Nicky, who turns out to be the epitome of a potheaded poet wannabe, sleeping with anyone he wishes.

Meanwhile there’s Jean, Nicky’s mother. Here Hadley strikes a sharp contrast between the women.  Jean stuck in an unhappy marriage with her husband of 20 years.  She reflects on the irony of having “allowed herself to submit to an outward order as if it mattered; now that order itself was crumbling anyway, all the sacrifices made to it turned out to have been a sham.”  Phyllis awakening is easy to root for but it causes havoc on her family, especially her children. It doesn’t take Phyllis long to stew in guilt about leaving her family and jealousy as Nicky sleeps around. It seems that there is nothing free about free love.

The book’s scope reaches beyond sexuality. Hadley does well to contrast Phyllis’ new bohemian lifestyle with her conservative views on race. When Phyllis first arrives at Nick’s flat, she thinks she has “never seen so many colored faces before, anywhere in England.” Phyllis says to Nicky’s black neighbor that she “hoped everything was changing” for the better in equality between the races. He has to do the work of explaining, “that when the white boys cut their hair and went back to their careers, the blacks would still be left on the outside.”

Hadley attempts a twist ending that ultimately feels unearned and unnecessary. The book feels less literary, oddly, as it devolves into Greek tragedy. It’s unfortunate, as it detracts from the sensitive portrayal of the characters navigating a complex era. Nevertheless, I recommend this book because of the author’s insights into the 1960s, its excellent writing, and the way it transports us to Swinging London. All the unfulfilled promises of the era regain their urgency.

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