Roger Fischer, the civil servant husband in Tessa Hadley’s 1960s domestic drama Free Love, is a rather circumspect creature. In a conversation with his wife, Phyllis, the protagonist of Hadley’s eighth novel, the couple discuss Roger’s recent work. He has been preparing documents about security in the Middle East. Phyllis offers dutiful but uninformed optimism about the prospects for that troubled region. Roger responds: “I probably come down on the side of not hoping too much. It’s a botched old civilisation, you know. Rather imperfect.”
Free Love initially purports to be a romantic novel, imagining a new kind of existence for Phyllis in opposition to the forces of Roger’s stiff-upper-lipped judiciousness. What might it mean to refuse the lot one has been assigned? What will happen if wild desires and aspirations are allowed to blossom? And how does it feel to be living a conventional life so close to the thrilling allure of swinging London, “a world turned upside down”, where such a sense of the possible was being embraced?
At the beginning of the narrative, Phyllis and her family are in the green and pleasant outskirts of London. Theirs is an unremarkable life of middle-class decorum. Hadley subtly draws attention to the solidity of the Fischers’ home – with its “boxed-in oak staircase and panelled oak doors” – and these physical features echo the family’s solidly conventional setup: steady and reliable Roger works up in Whitehall; erudite daughter Colette drips with predictable adolescent antipathy; winningly charming eight-year-old Hugh is readying himself to attend the boarding school his father went to. Mingling with the neighbours (the Barnes-Pryces, the Chidgelys) and managing the domestic help, fragrant Phyllis prettily keeps things ticking over.
But of course, as in the work of Richard Yates or AM Homes, “under the placid surface of suburbia, something [is] unhinged”. A deliciously absurd set-piece dinner party is the inciting incident. Nicky, the conspicuously countercultural twentysomething son of Roger’s old friend, is the “interesting” guest of honour at the meal. Nicky’s bohemian affectations and resistance to bourgeois politesse both disquiet and captivate Phyllis – much to her surprise. Phyllis “hadn’t known that the young had this power, to reduce the present of the middle-aged to rubble”. Nicky’s nonchalant dismissal of Phyllis’s settled existence releases this “something unhinged” within her: a latent propensity for risk, a longing for the untried.
Without unequivocally lionising its protagonist as an intrepid pursuer of liberty or vilifying her for naive self-indulgence, the narrative coalesces around Phyllis and her relationship with Nicky. It homes in on this latter-day Emma Bovary’s pained evaluations and negotiations – “she saw how fatally Roger and the children […] held her fixed inside their shape, so that she couldn’t change her own life without bringing everyone else’s down around her”. Hadley also shrewdly problematises the misleading promises of the sexual revolution through her unstinting portrayal of the Ginsberg-adoring, pot-smoking rake Nicky. While the Fischers’ Arts and Crafts suburban villa exudes Roger’s desire for steadiness and civility, the faded block of flats in Ladbroke Grove where Nicky lives is perhaps revelatory of what lies beneath his shiny “idyll of playful ease”:
The Everglade was a crumbling vast art nouveau palace, built at the turn of the century to contain sixty luxury serviced apartments […] Now it had fallen from grace, broken up into who knew how many run-down bedsits and sublets, taken over by ex-boxers, theatricals, members of occult sects, tarot-card readers […] The roof leaked in a thousand places […] once or twice an excess of stone ornamentation from the façade had crashed into the street below.
Master storyteller and superior stylist that she is, Hadley wryly records the unexpected crashes and calamities of Nicky and Phyllis’s relationship as Phyllis wrangles with the “nothingness of her self”. The sustained intimacy of Hadley’s recent novels Late in the Day and The Past that have garnered her legions of admirers is in abundance here – and not just in relation to her central characters. Her acuity in making use of minor figures is a highlight, too. Congruences between Colette’s teenage rebellions (late-night drinking and inexpert flirtation in which she “imagines [herself] doing the audacious … and then follows through”) and Phyllis’s misadventures add a complicating, challenging, satirical thread. Equally, Barbara Jones, a Grenadian trainee nurse and neighbour of Nicky, is a welcome presence. Barbara introduces a salty, straight-talking realism that counters Phyllis’s often infuriatingly hazy idealism. Her muted but nevertheless affecting revelations about the inequities of life as a working-class Black woman in 1960s London importantly widen the scope of this novel’s feminist concerns.
One criticism sometimes levelled at Hadley’s astutely observed narratives is that, for all their finesse, they lack propulsion and verve – her 2007 novel, The Master Bedroom, is a case in point. 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.
• Free Love by Tessa Hadley (Vintage, £16.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.