Free Love by Tessa Hadley - review by Guy Stevenson

Guy Stevenson

Summer of Adultery

Free Love

By

Jonathan Cape 320pp £16.99 order from our bookshop
 

This book tells a subtler story about the 1960s than its title and cover promise. Taking its name from a hippy slogan, and with a cover depicting a sultry Nico-type figure, Tessa Hadley’s latest novel looks suspiciously like holiday reading. What it offers is a combination of Mills & Boons-y romance and moving social realism.

At its centre is Phyllis Fischer, a forty-year-old Home Counties wife who abandons her family for an aspiring writer half her age. She begins the novel in the suburban England of Elizabeth David cookbooks, a world in which experimentation means bringing garlic back from camping trips to France and scabby-kneed boys play ‘Red Indians’ in the woods; where everyone is ‘terribly kind’, homework is ‘rotten’ and you call a ‘little man’ to come and fix things in your house. She ends it in Ladbroke Grove among poets, sculptors, musicians, new West Indian immigrants and squatters, immersed in the counterculture of the 1960s.

Hadley is better at capturing suburbia than bohemia. Her portrayals of Phyllis’s Just William-like son and of the pained and kind restraint of her civil servant husband, Roger, are convincing, but the hippies whom Phyllis’s lover, Nicky, introduces her to are a bit cartoonish. Hadley treats each character

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