While London comes alive with the new youth revolution in 1967, the suburban Fischer family seems to belong to an older world of conventional stability: Pretty, dutiful homemaker Phyllis is married to Roger, a devoted father with a career in the Foreign Office. Their children are Colette, a bookish teenager, and Hugh, the golden boy. But when the 20-something son of an old friend pays the Fischers a visit one hot summer evening and kisses Phyllis in the dark garden after dinner, something in her catches fire.
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.
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.