*Thank you to Netgallery and Rosanna Boscawen from Penguin Random House for this arc*
Free Love by Tessa Hadley is a 2022 historical fiction novel based in 1967 Britain focusing on the story of one woman’s life as a suburban wife and mother in a time of political and cultural upheaval, and the decisions she makes and how this changes her family’s lives. It currently has an average rating of 3.8 stars on Goodreads, and I have given it 4 stars.
Phyllis Fischer is married to Roger Fischer with two children: Collette and Hugh, in a suburban dream that brings peace and stability. However, all that changes on a summer night when the son of an old family friend comes to dinner, exposing Phyllis to something new and exciting. They kiss on that hot summer evening and the world changes for her. Awaken to this new world and new feelings, Phyllis makes decisions that defies her role as mother and wife, exposing her family’s ordinary life to events and the dramatic changes of the society around them.
Admittedly, when I read the premise for this I wasn’t sure if I would like it or not, so I did begin the book with mild trepidation, but this was soon expelled in favour of a desperate need to turn each page and read more. This was a super interesting read, and since I studied the 1960s last year – or ‘the long decade’ – I was looking forward to experiencing a book set just in this time. It was a good book, not brilliant, nor my favourite, but it was compelling.
This is very much a character-driven rather than plot-driven story, so if that’s not your kind of thing it won’t be for you. However, the characters are fascinating, and they just grow more intriguing as the book carries on and we learn more about them, their lives and their beliefs. The main character, Phyllis, is who we spend most of our time with and she’s a character even now I think a lot of women will recognised and sympathise with, whilst the way she she represents womanhood and the role of women in society has been done countless times before, it didn’t feel boring or stale. Her journey is unsurprising in the beginning, however I still enjoyed it, and as the book goes on she grows beyond this. Yet, I should note Phyllis can get a little old a little too fast, towards halfway through Free Love I was starting to grow a bit fed up with her an emotional whims – she’s forty, she should know better.
However, as the book progresses the narrative switches to a different character instead of Phyllis, who begins to slowly fade into the background, and we spent time with arguably my favourite character out of all of them, Phyllis’ daughter Collette. She’s a teenager living through the 1960s and discovering what it means to grow into a women without her mum by her side, and the conflicts you see rise in her, the confusion especially, expertly mirrors the way a lot of young woman feel. I particularly enjoyed her fumbling intellectual journey paralleled with her growth into a woman, it felt authentic and her attraction to certain new modes of life made sense, the only thing I didn’t like was her ending but it was still believable.
The secondary characters in this also helped to serve the book in brilliant ways, from Roger, Phyllis’ estranged husband, to her son Hugh where the exploration of the effect of the ‘old ways’ in children truly takes place. The characters we also meet in London are all curious, and I enjoyed the scenes where we got to see them all interact with each other, and how their different lives intersected but were also formed through their beliefs. The only secondary character I grew to have any issue with was Nikki, who at first was exciting as he is the character who truly introduces the action of the book, and the conflict of beliefs that runs through it, but who the character he grew into was one I found hard to engage with and ultimately hoped I would not see again.
An integral aspect of this book is the beliefs tied to it and it’s characters. Free Love is very much not only about exploring family dynamics and womanhood (for white women) in 1960s Britain, but also about Britain’s cultural and political beliefs at the time. Each character is assigned a different cultural and political standpoint whether it’s Roger who is the old, stiff-upper lip British colonialist, to Nikki’s new anti-capitalist, anti-colonial stance; or to someone like Phyllis who is drawn to the new debates with a desire to learn and discover. It makes for interesting storytelling, and conversation, but there were times I found myself getting lost as the narrative waded too deeply into this debate and losing sight of the characters.
Hadley is also able to create a very believable 1960s British setting within the book, at no time did I forget where we are, and it was clear she knew what feeling and atmosphere she intended to capture. I particularly enjoyed London at this time, and reading about the streets and the life contained within it as it always seemed so vibrant.
I would note, that this doesn’t do anything new or revolutionary with the ideas contained within it, everything is a trope I have seen before, or a conflict that is being rehashed for this book. As well as this, you should be aware this really does focus on the experience of white, middle-class British people and little else at this time; Hadley does attempt to include conversations through secondary characters to encompass more than just the white experience, but they are small and ultimately not the focus. Yet, even though it doesn’t do anything I would label as new, it is still well-written and nicely explores these themes.
Overall, it’s a great book, and I’m glad this is my first Hadley book as I’m now intrigued to see what else she has written and discover what else she has to say. It’s definitely one to pick up if you enjoy historical fiction and politics, if not this will be a miss for you.