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'Free Love' puts a '60s spin on a Jane Austen-style novel of manners

Free Love, by Tessa Hadley
Harper Collins

You need only watch a YouTube clip of any Ed Sullivan show from the mid-1960s to see confirmation of Einstein's theory that past, present and future co-exist simultaneously. Take Ed's infamous "really big show" from September 1967, featuring comic Rodney Dangerfield, Great American Songbook singers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, and The Doors. That night, the so-called "Silent Era" of the 1950s shared the stage with the Psychedelic '60s.

Tessa Hadley's sharp new novel, Free Love, is about just such a moment. When we first meet our main character, Phyllis Fischer, she's sitting at her dressing table, primping for a rather fussy dinner she's hosting that night for the son of some friends, who's recently arrived in London.

It's a summer evening in 1967 and Phyllis, a pretty, upper-middle-class woman on the cusp of 40, is applying pale lipstick, backcombing her hair, and slipping on an empire-waisted mini-dress in keeping with the fashions of the day. But, otherwise, Phyllis is a 1950s model wife and mother: Daily life in her gracious suburban home is as fixed as "the pork terrine decorated in bay leaves and glazed in its aspic" to be served as the dinner's first course.

By the end of the evening, however, Phyllis will brush up against the sexual revolution of the '60s in the form of the dinner guest whose name is Nicky Knight. Think of a minor Jim Morrison who shows up at the Fischer's front door an hour late, stinking of nicotine, beer and insolence. Irresistible.

If you haven't yet read Hadley, the short-cut way of characterizing her style is to say that she explicitly embraces Jane Austen and Henry James as literary models, but she also has the edge of a tough girl writer like Rachel Kushner. Psychological depth, wit, and a vein of ruthlessness mark Hadley's novels and short stories. She's great fun to read until the fun stops. Maybe you hear that distinctive sudden shift of tone in this description of Phyllis' growing besottedness with Nicky over dinner:

Every least detail of Nicky's presence seemed significant for Phyllis, because she might be shut out from now on from youth and beauty: purple smudges under his eyes, taut creases that came beside his lips when he smiled to himself in irony; ... His movements were so loosely spontaneous, outraging all the conventions the Fischers lived by: she seemed to see their constraint and formality through his eyes. Nicky stubbed out his cigarette, right in the middle of his slice of her terrine. Phyllis hadn't known that the young had this power, to reduce the present of the middle-aged to rubble.

The devastation of that epiphany, however, is cushioned for Phyllis, when, after dinner, she and Nicky wind up drunkenly snogging in the garden, as they search in the dark for a child's missing shoe. Soon enough, Phyllis is making excuses to see Nicky in his crummy flat in London, where he welcomes her adoration and sexual expertise.

Hadley is such a precise writer that she depicts this situation with all the strangeness and gravitas of the real. We sense from the get-go that Phyllis will only be a chapter in the brash Nicky's life, while he will completely upend hers. But, even when rendering Phyllis' obsession with full erotic force, Hadley always takes time out for humor. Here, for instance, is Phyllis musing on her new secretive life:

Nicky had no history of failure, and no grown-up authority in the world, so when he made love to her it was with his whole frank concentration—and with such urgency, as if nothing else was important. That was what Phyllis thought then too. Nothing else was important ... .

[Phyllis] knew that her betrayal of her husband and children was wrong, but in the same impersonal dulled way that she knew from school about the Treaty of Vienna, or the abolition of the Corn Laws.

Out of consideration for what becomes an inventively Victorian plot — full of coincidences and mistaken identities — I've focused here on the central situation of Free Love. But this is a deceptively expansive novel, filled with idiosyncratic characters and a distinctive flavor of the times. Beyond the confines of Phyllis's suburban house and Nicky's one-room flat, Hadley gives us sweeping descriptions of London in the Swinging '60s, where old fashioned elegance, is giving way to crushed velvets and "Indian silver" jewelry. A domestic novel of manners, erotic abandon and cultural change, Free Love is as eclectic and alive as the times it captures.

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