Free Love by Tessa Hadley – A Review

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Publication Date: 20th January 2022

I am somewhat loathe to admit that this was my first Tessa Hadley book! Now that I have read it I am thrilled that Tessa has such an extensive backlist for me to work my way through!

Free Love is set in the late 1960’s in London, a time when the world was a changin’! We meet 40 year old Phyllis (Phyll), her husband Roger, her teenage daughter Collette and 9 year old son Hugh. Phyllis lives the epitome of a suburban life and the book opens with her getting ready for a dinner guest to arrive, Nicholas, the twenty-something son of Roger’s friends.

Both parties are a bit reluctant about the dinner having last seen each other once, briefly, when Nicky was a child. However, he has recently moved to the area and his parents have arranged the dinner on his behalf. During the course of the meal Phyllis, having recently touched a cold ice bucket, lightly touches Nicky on the shoulder. The young man flinches from the cold, but Phyllis wrongly assumes he’s flinching from her touch which makes her feel a certain way about her age/attractiveness to men in her head.

When later on an event means Nicky and Phyllis are left alone outside in the dark and share a passionate kiss, a chain of events are set in motion.

Phyllis questions her safe suburban lifestyle, her marriage and her parenting role. She decides to leave the family and live a rather bohemian lifestyle with Nicky, in a less than desirable part of London.

This act of desertion deeply affects not only her relationship with her husband, but severs the extremely close bond she has with her young son Hugh. Perhaps the most affected is teenager Colette, who is desperately trying to galvanise her own identity in the absence of a mother figure at a time that is often tricky enough to handle without your family fracturing around you.

Tessa Hadley perfectly depicts family life, marriage and parenthood. I also felt transported back in time to the late 60’s with all of the cultural, social and political changes. In the opening chapters describing the evening as Phyllis is getting ready for the dinner party I could almost hear the children playing in the street and feel the sticky heat. I was hugely invested right from the start and flew through the whole book in 24 hours.

I always enjoy books about struggling mothers or women to fight against the societal norm of what a ‘good’ mother should be. Tessa Hadley makes you think about the moral implications of Phyllis and her actions and it is often not clear who’s side you should fall on. I like a book that makes you think!

I am now really excited to work my way through Tessa Hadley’s backlist. Don’t you just love it when that happens?!

Thank you to Jonathan Cape and Isobel Turton for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda xx

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