Tessa Hadley's latest novel, "Free Love," begins with the lush gardens, well-kept homes and seemingly placid families that a fan of her work might expect, described, as ever, in exquisite and sensuous prose. In this case, the family is the Fischers: husband Roger, wife Phyllis, children Hugh and Colette.
It is 1967; Phyllis, 40, is described as "pleased with her life" and also as someone who "liked men, she couldn't help herself." In pleasantly transparent foreshadowing, Hadley writes, "there was no question of [Phyllis] flirting" with that evening's dinner guest, Nicky Knight, "who was nearer to the age of her own daughter."
Even the background noise, of children screaming and trespassing through each other's yards as they play, is a nod to the themes at the heart of this work: youthfulness, with its abandonment and glee, juxtaposed against the feeling of having outgrown that part of life. Feeling slighted by Nicky at first, "Phyllis hadn't known that the young had this power, to reduce the present of the middle-aged to rubble." The novel's attention turns to the power that Phyllis herself holds.
At the core of Phyllis' attraction to Nicky is the narrative that supports it. In the wake of a single kiss, she begins to construct an idea: "He's my lover, she thought with finality … Once she had told herself a certain story it became fixed, and no reasoning or evidence to the contrary could shake it."
There is an echo here of the way Phyllis "couldn't help herself" regarding her desire for men. Hadley uses the same phrase to describe Phyllis' church attendance: "she couldn't help it, she loved the atmosphere in a church service, the flowers and the singing, found it uplifting even if it didn't make sense." What is sensible, for Phyllis, is not the same as what is joyful; indeed, what pleases her most is also her most reckless behavior.
In the shadow of the affair are other stories, no lesser for being less prominent at first. Colette's brilliance does not outweigh her dismay at looking, in a dress, like a "pink blancmange." Hugh will soon be sent to boarding school, a shift in Phyllis' world that she dreads. Nicky's relationship to his mother, Jean Knight, strongly parallels that between Phyllis and Hugh. There is political sparring, youthful idealism, privileged ambivalence.
Hadley wisely hands the point of view to the children when Phyllis flees the house before Christmas. The portrait of domestic life without their mother is haunting and sorrowful; furthermore, it drags them into the next phase of their lives. Roger's own romantic history with a member of the Knight family creates a sense of both repetition and inevitability; there are surprising revelations about the various ways the Fischers and Knights are intertwined. In her new life in London, Phyllis transforms, abandoning all that once mattered to her.
Regarding Hugh and his contented childhood, among other things, Phyllis once thinks, "This happiness can't last." Later, Roger tells Colette, "It was so easy to break things … Putting them together was long and slow." The stories of break and repair in this novel are wonderfully unpredictable.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, Harvard Review, the Ploughshares blog and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Tessa Hadley.
Publisher: Harper, 287 pages, $26.99.