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What a wonderful romp!

 

Free Love is a comic novel set in 1967, the summer of Free Love and widely held to be the gateway from traditional values to modern thinking. Tessa Hadley provides a journey through this gateway, seen through the lives of the Fischer family. 

 

Roger Fischer is a meat and two veg kind of middle class guy - war hero - senior civil servant in the Foreign Office - father of two school age children, Colette and Hugh, and happily married to Phyllis. His friends are well connected, and his social life has revolved around country estates. The Fischers' lives are mapped out on a path to moderate success within the establishment. 

 

Enter stage left, Nicky Knight - the son of an old family friend who is invited to dinner one evening in the hope that he might hit it off with Colette, the dowdy 16 year old daughter. Nicky has just established himself in London with writerly ambitions, so the hope is that Roger could provide mentorship while Colette provides friendship. What a tangled web we weave - Nicky leaves with the wrong woman. Phyllis, seemingly on a whim, follows Nicky into 1967's bohemia - art, sex, drugs and West Indians. 

 

The characters are all grotesque. They have major character flaws, they are not terribly virtuous but they all have a likability that is enhanced by a shifting point of view that shines a spotlight on each of  them in turn. Phyllis is the star: naive, romantic and self-absorbed; with Nicky the immature and shallow co-star. The supporting cast of immediate family, aunts, hippies and schoolfriend are a comic delight. They all bring piety and leave with disgrace. The narration is done with a vein of humour that sets the reader in a position of moral superiority. 

 

The scene setting feels right. The contrast between the brown affluence and the colourful poverty; the supposed shift in society - while the values actually turn out never to have been quite as far apart as all that. Roger is less conventional than he appears; while Nicky and the kids seem quite happy to jack in their free hedonism to chase careers. Novels often try to capture a momentous time through a limited car of characters - this one is that rare beast that succeeds. There feels like there is a world beyond the lives of these characters; it feels genuinely as though they are the link between two worlds and two ages. 

 

This is not a remarkable or terribly surprising story. The strength is in the way it is told. 

 

*****

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