Free Love: 3.5*. Tessa Hadley is a clever writer who gets deep into the hearts of her characters (well, the female ones at least). She writes extremely well – this is literary fiction, not chick lit (not that I have anything against chick lit, mind you, I’m just putting this in its appropriate box).
Free Love tells the story of Phyllis, a bored 1960s housewife who becomes infatuated with a much younger man, Nicholas. She gives up her whole life (and kids) in order to be with him. The effect on her daughter, in particular, is profound.
The novel is mostly unjudgmental about Phyllis, or indeed the other characters. It doesn’t moralise, doesn’t condemn. But it doesn’t shy from showing the damage Phyllis inflicts on her family either. It may be Free Love, but it’s not free of consequences.
Nicholas comes across as a rather vacuous young man, flattered by the attention, who is in it for the ride (if you’ll excuse the vulgar pun) rather than totally infatuated too. He hardly seems worth the ruin of a family.
But isn’t that exactly what happens in cases of infatuation? It’s a trainwreck of emotions that causes a trainwreck of an aftermath, damaging all concerned.
The 1960s setting, and the changing social and sexual mores are well portrayed. Hadley captures the yearning for freedom and the flailing about as people desperately try to pinpoint what this ‘freedom’ might actually look like. Or what value it really has. There’s nothing astonishing in all this (after all, these themes have been at the heart of a zillion books, movies, TV series, so we know it well) but nonetheless Hadley manages to make the story feel fresh, and interesting, and individual.
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