Free Love by Tessa Hadley: its publication is a “reason for celebration”

Tessa Hadley is rightly praised for ‘elevating the domestic romance to literary fiction’ in her stories about the ‘shifting geometries’ of middle-class families, Mia Levitin has told the FT. free love, his eighth novel, “adds a touch of the 60s to Anna Karenina”.

Set in 1967, it centers on 40-year-old Phyllis Fischer, an affluent suburban housewife married to Roger, a high-ranking civil servant. One summer evening, Nicky, in his twenties, the son of a family friend, comes over for supper. He and Phyllis steal an “illicit kiss” – and get into an affair. Leaving the house without a forwarding address, Phyllis trades her cozy life with Roger for “then bohemian Ladbroke Grove” (where Nicky occupies a squalid studio).

Hadley’s style is more “lavish” than ever, and his characterizations are superb. Although it may not be his best novel, its publication is a “cause for celebration”.

Hadley was criticized for “the narrowness of her social concerns – her incorrigible preoccupation with Cecilias, Harriets and Rolands”, said James Marriott in The Times. It is therefore gratifying that in this “beautiful and exciting” novel she pits the bourgeois world against the “extremely undomesticated” counterculture of the 1960s.

Yet there is a problem, Johanna Thomas-Corr told The Sunday Times: Hadley is far more at home among grassy borders than the “pot-smoking” milieu of Nicky and her friends. Her depictions of the Swinging Sixties rarely rise above the cliché – and “when she tries to capture the life of a black nurse whom Phyllis befriends, the writing becomes laborious”. You sense Hadley “can’t wait to get back to the middle class suburbs” – and as this disappointing novel progressed, I wish I was back with her.

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