Free Love, is smartly situated in [a] fusion of defiance and regret, liberation and attachment ... Hadley alludes to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, but her story cuts its own path ... Hadley writes, 'Phyllis hadn’t known that the young had this power, to reduce the present of the middle-aged to rubble.' That sounds like witty hyperbole, and it is, but it’s also an intimation of the demolition that’s coming. Fans of Hadley’s exquisitely written novels know that nothing is accidental or wasted ... Delightful as [the] climactic opening is, the real triumph of Hadley’s novel stems from her judicious portrayal of what happens next.
Her 2015 novel The Past is her masterpiece...not least in her depiction of the inner worlds of children, but her present novel, Free Love, approaches that work’s agility in capturing thought and feeling in flight ... Ms. Hadley perfectly captures this aspect of the ’60s, the urgency of wanting to join the paraded mystique and collective individuality of the beautiful people ... a penetrating, extraordinarily subtle novel about an unsubtle era. From a distance, its culture may seem to have been all surface: all sex, pot, fancy dress and political righteousness, but Ms. Hadley shows how it worked its changes into the lives and feelings of a handful of superbly conjured individuals.
In her eighth novel, [Hadley] weaves a plot that ensnares multiple generations and raises timeless questions about the risks worth taking for self-fulfillment ... Hadley, who so brilliantly captures her characters' every twinge of emotion, is also drawn to innovative structures that highlight how the past extends in unexpected ways into the future, with often serious repercussions ... Free Love runs along a more straightforwardedly chronological timeline ... It's a recursive story in which apples don't fall far from trees and children unwittingly repeat the sins of their parents — or mutations of those sins. Jumps in time and between various characters lend the narrative the structure of a handheld fan whose folded panels each reveal different crucial bits of information ... Hadley efficiently sets the scene and demonstrates her keen sense of place ... Tightly constructed ... Free Love revisits several common literary tropes, including the runaway wife, December-May and May-December relationships, and secrets that come back to bite. But with its carefully wrought contrasts between women with the guts 'to be shameless, careless, frank' versus one who, decades earlier, was not, Free Love is a fresh, moving evocation of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
One criticism sometimes levelled at Hadley’s astutely observed narratives is that, for all their finesse, they lack propulsion and verve ... Some readers may consider the conclusion of Free Love in similar terms, feeling that the plot fizzles out, or that the resolution for the Fischers is partial or underwhelming. But on rereading, the final pages struck me as achingly moving and real. This novel does not close as a triumphant bildungsroman of middle life, replete with self-discovery. Instead, Hadley’s poignant drawing together of a situation that ultimately becomes 'as fatally twisted as a Greek drama' shows a writer with boundless compassion. Yet again, she offers insightful and sensitive understanding of the quiet compromises people make to survive in a deeply compromised world.
A tight little Oedipal drama ... Tessa Hadley observes her characters with a cold eye ... The blurb tells us that Free Love explores 'living out the truest and most meaningful version of our lives', but nothing so trite would ever interest Hadley ... Hadley’s observations are tough and wince-inducing, particularly the sartorial ones ... Hadley, a keen Jamesian, muses throughout on the problem of belatedness, returning to it on the devastating final page.
If there’s folly here, it’s part of the novel’s trick to tempt us to see it as belonging only to Phyllis, when the tangled roots of the situation truly lie elsewhere. As Hadley shifts fluently between the points of view of the various parties involved, the novel turns as much on long-buried family secrets as it does the yearnings of itchy-footed middle age ... Hadley’s complex sentences are purring marvels of engineering, always weighted just so, cut-glass English with a continental inflection, fond of a comma splice, the dialogue marked with a dash. A brilliant writer of interiority who can also do great scenes, she has a gift, especially, for portraying the state of wanting to be wanted, or simply to be seen – a recurring longing in her fiction, whose characters often have cause to be careful what they wish for ... Subtle ... Generous ... It’s long become customary for Hadley’s reviewers to point out that she’s flagrantly undersung – never longlisted for the Booker, for instance – yet the emerging consensus this time round seems to be that Free Love is below par. Call me soft but I don’t see it: almost every page struck me anew with some elegant phrasing, feline irony or shrewdly sympathetic insight. The real wonder is that she does this pretty much every three years; it’s easy to become ungrateful.
Tessa Hadley's latest novel, Free Love, begins with the lush gardens, well-kept homes and seemingly placid families that a fan of her work might expect, described, as ever, in exquisite and sensuous prose ... In the shadow of the affair are other stories, no lesser for being less prominent at first ... The stories of break and repair in this novel are wonderfully unpredictable.
Colette...is a finely observed teenage psyche: sensitive to the tiniest slights against herself and ignorant of the demands she places on others ... The strange concatenation of wet shoe, wobbly torches, dark garden, and hot, searching kisses feels like a perfect encapsulation of Hadley’s remarkable style. The formula of the English novel, in her hands, feels fresh and surprising. Hadley’s brilliance lies in the way she turns close, domestic plotlines—a housewife leaving her family, a teenager entering sexual life—this way and that to show their cracks. Her interest in the tightly controlled third-person, never quite absorbed into the characters whose lives it narrates, is a kind of British realism on steroids ... On the level of plot, the most surprising aspect of this novel, which at its base is the story of the sexual revolution’s longue durée, is the way Hadley’s gaze catches the slips and limits of hippie optimism ... The book’s ending is a muted, gently bleak one ... a life without love, or a man, or sex, however you think of it, isn’t a tragedy in this world.
Hadley has crafted an aesthetic that inspires trust, and the author’s free indirect style...allows us access to the characters’ inner lives. She is also a superb portraitist, rendering people with the tiniest of details ... Free Love is not, to my mind, the strongest of Hadley’s eight novels ... The denouement of Free Love, following the revelation of a family secret 'as fatally twisted as a Greek drama', feels rushed. No matter: a sumptuous stylist, Hadley is a writer for whom language trumps all else. Any publication of hers, whether of short or long fiction, is cause for celebration for the pure pleasure of the prose.
Hadley is our great novelist of bourgeois domesticity, minutely sensitive to its emotional perturbations and as devotedly attentive to its gorgeous solidity — its fabrics and glassware — as a Flemish painter of the 15th century ... It is gratifying, then, to discover that in Free Love Hadley has chosen to range against the cosy and solidly domestic all the hairy, panting, idealistic forces unleashed by that supremely undomesticated decade, the 1960s ... Phyllis’s kitchen is much more real than her hazily associated ideas about the environment and the bomb. And here perhaps is this beautiful and exciting novel’s flaw. If the point (a compelling one) is that even in the intellectual tumult of the 1960s, all the grand ideas are doomed to founder into froth and foam when they crash into the littleness of everyday human life, then the apparent power of the 1960s over the domestic is hard to credit. The characters are supposedly motivated by ideas, but it’s never quite convincing.
Free Love artfully delves beneath the veneer of the British middle class to tell an intimate story of generational discord, political change and sexual freedom ... These are big themes that could weigh down a novel, but they are deftly handled by the author. The queen of the domestic drama, Hadley doesn’t deal directly with events in the outside world, but rather provides meticulous portraits of those whose lives are gently nudged by external forces ... Hadley doesn’t judge, instead leaving the reader to process the biggest and most unfair taboo here: that of a mother abandoning her children and putting herself first ... If the author’s desire to wrap things up leads to an unsatisfactory twist and a sudden rush to the finish, it doesn’t diminish the power of what came before.
Phyllis moves to Ladbroke Grove, where the grand blocks of the 1920s are being demolished to make way for the new Westway. This risks being a hamfisted metaphor, but Hadley manages it with great panache — although the area’s Caribbean characters do serve at times as awkward props for Phyllis’s (and, later, her daughter’s) self-discovery ... There are times when the prose falters into cliché ... But ultimately this is a gorgeously magnanimous novel, which reprises Hadley’s favoured themes of middle age, and how — and when, and if — to change one’s life.
In her latest work of quiet devastation, Tessa Hadley casts a Greek tragedy upon the lives of a conservative, suburban English family ... Few contemporary novelists are so adept with the seamless omniscient narration that seems second nature to Hadley ... If anything, Hadley is a victim of her past success. Having set the bar so high...her latest work does not quite reach her past heady heights. She has always excelled in the art of subtle storytelling, elevating the private plot of an ordinary life to something universal and staggering. Essential human stories, dissected and held up to the light, are Hadley’s tour de force ... On this occasion, however, the plotting of the narrative made its presence felt in explicit ways that weakened rather than strengthened its power ... What is undeniable, however, is her exquisite ability to exemplify Tolstoy’s poignant attention to detail. Every description in this novel is dynamic, infused with storytelling, so that all elements are working hard for their place on the page. She is masterful at capturing the authentic detail that unlocks a character or transports us to another place and time ... Hadley demonstrates a particular talent for oscillating between the tiniest beat of life and the exaggerated hysteria of human emotion ... Emotion, however, is seldom allowed to gush on to the pages of a Hadley novel – her prose instead is refined, clean and precise ... Free Love is dedicated to the great questions of fate and freedom, familial duty and self-care, passion and commitment while resisting any impulse to tell a morality tale. By the end, new questions are arising for these characters that we have become so intimate with. As such, there is a residual feeling that their stories continue, and Hadley has the confidence not to wrestle them into a forced neat conclusion.
[Hadley] loves describing the 'steady relieving splash of a hose in a herbaceous border' or the way the light falls on a glass demijohn. But when she tries to capture the life of a black nurse whom Phyllis befriends, the writing becomes laboured. The depiction of the Swinging Sixties feels clichéd and second-hand ... Curiously, Free Love also falls down in the area in which Hadley usually excels, which is in portraying couples with tangled erotic histories ... In Free Love the tangle is preposterous: secret pregnancies, illegitimate children, with none of the psychological subtlety that is usually her hallmark ... Hadley seems to think this is all fine as long as her characters keep drawing self-consciously literary comparisons to their situation ... In the end, I couldn’t work out why Hadley had written Free Love. Is it because there’s something important to understand about the relationship between the late Sixties and the way we live now? ... I wouldn’t need to ask this question were the writing not so bland and self-indulgent. Call it a silly middle-class saga, call it English nostalgia porn, the result is very disappointing indeed.
[Free Love] uses the explosion of one family’s domestic setup to draw a fascinating portrait of the politics, manners and morals at the heart of a declining empire in a period of rapid societal change ... Stiletto-sharp humour rounds out these fascinating characters ... The narrative is beautifully pinpointed in the era with evocative descriptions of fashion, food and furniture and the political overtones that can be attached to each ... Hadley writes compellingly fascinating characters viewed from every angle, perfectly encapsulating an era of change.
... brilliant, sensual, seductively plotted ... Moving forward and backward in time from that fateful night, Hadley, who has written seven previous novels and three short story collections, has devised an intricate plot that unfolds with the terrible inevitability of a Greek tragedy. At the same time, it manages not to take itself too seriously in large part due to the uncanny good humor and common sense of its very English main characters ... Hadley has written an extraordinary story about love and transformation with a woman in early middle age at its center who is willing to sacrifice virtually everything to achieve what Hillary Clinton memorably described in her 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley as 'more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living' ... This is a novel that will stay with you for a long time.
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 ... 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 ... The blank, impervious quality [of Phyllis] makes her less interesting than some of Hadley’s more subtle characters.
[Hadley's] novels have been described as low-key and ‘low-octane’ domestic dramas, and this is at least partly true as a description of Free Love, which is so much more than a story of one woman’s familial discomfort ... The 1960s are happening, but Hadley records them in the intimate spectacle of human relationships within four walls, rarely taking it to the streets. The result is no less transformative ... Hadley doesn’t indulge literary trends; she’s attentive to feelings, to the weight of small actions. Her primary interest is characters – what rumbles in their bellies; what pushes them forward; what glues them in place. Free Love shifts the view between all its major players, with wise, razor-sharp observations. Dialogue resonates with the truth that shadows each word these characters use with each other. When I finished reading Free Love I sensed I knew all these people very well, despite the multitude of lies they tell themselves to get by. They feel alive to me. The highest compliment I can give.
A fine chronicler of domesticity, of social status and psychological nuance, Hadley has set up easy targets for herself in this narrowly populated tale marked by stark symbolism ... Talk of the Paris uprising and the anti-Vietnam protests evoke the era, but the novel offers more emotional solidity in what is being left behind...than in what lies ahead ... A not-quite-persuasive account of passion and revolution.
Poignant, ironic ... What seems at first to be a simple tale of adultery and its consequences twists into something between a 'cosmic comedy'...and a 'situation as fatally twisted as a Greek drama' ... The narrator’s wise, disaffected view of life homes in on the shakiness of Phyllis’s sentimental education. In keen, lush prose, Hadley conveys the many ways her characters delude themselves amid fraught relationships between parents and children as well as between lovers. The result is sumptuous and surprising.