Tessa Hadley’s novel, Free Love, a tale of adultery, liberation and secrets, is set in 1960s Britain. The focus is 40 year-oldPhyllis Fischer, the mismatched wife of Roger, a devoted husband and father who has a solid career in the Foreign Office. Phyllis and Roger have two children: Colette, a lumpish unattractive teen, and 9 year-old Hugh. Phyllis has her role as wife and mother–she keeps a wonderful home, cooks for dinner parties, and has a house cleaner. She’s an excellent wife and mother, and yet it doesn’t take much to send Phyllis off the rails.
This is the 60s, and 60s sexuality runs headlong into Phyllis when a young, attractive man named Nicholas comes to visit the Fischers. His parents, Jean and Peter are long-time friends of the family, and Jean sends Nicholas to meet the Fischers since he’s new to London. Nicholas upsets the dinner by engaging with Roger over politics. Phyllis is used to flirting with the men who come her way, but a casual squeeze of Nicholas’s shoulder seems to make him recoil. Phyllis questions her “sexual self” and wonders if she repulsed Nicky.
Phyllis hadn’t known that the young had this power, to reduce the present of the middle-aged to rubble.
Nicky finds he’s attracted to Phyllis–that somehow she doesn’t quite fit the housewife role she plays:
The blurred big mouth-the pink lipstick seeping into the cracks in her lips–gave her away somehow as playful and irresponsible for all her performance as the ideal housewife. No doubt she was as bored as he was, bored to death.
After Phyllis has too much to drink, she ends up kissing Nicholas in the garden. Things should end there, but they don’t. It’s as though all these years, Phyllis has been in her role as wife and mother but that role, like a suit of ill fitting clothing, never felt right. She has secret sexual longings for passion, and her sex life with Roger has always been restrained–companionable rather than passionate. Phyllis had one lover before marriage to Roger–it was a torrid affair that “turned into something ugly, and she’d buried the memory of it, marrying Roger instead and reacting against passion, seeming to see through it and believing she could live without it.“
The memory of passion–the years of self denial erupt to the surface of Phyllis’s life. Phyllis seeks out Nicholas in Boho London and an affair begins. With Nicholas in his 20s on the cusp of his career, and Phyllis almost old enough to be his mother, it’s obvious that this relationship has an expiration date. Phyllis’s quest for liberation–sexual, intellectual, comes at a terrible price.
After finishing the novel, which I enjoyed but found rather sad, I asked myself whether the word ‘free’ in the title was an adjective or a verb. Perhaps both? Did love ‘free’ Phyllis? Is love ever free or does it come with chains and encumbrances? And what of Roger, who is not neglected here–what does Free Love do to his life? Phyllis is not the only one chained to a life that is perhaps not exactly what one would have chosen. When Phyllis decides to leave her family, it’s her choice, yes, but everyone pays the price.