In 1879, Scandinavians were so perturbed by Henrik Ibsen’s new play that party invitations asked guests to not mention “A Doll’s House.”

And ever since, we’ve been not mentioning mothers who abandon their children. Almost 150 years have passed since Nora slammed that door, but the sound of a woman’s dereliction still alarms us – and thrills us.

Last fall, Claire Vaye Watkins published “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness,” an autobiographical novel about a writer who leaves her husband and baby for a two-day book tour in Reno. She never returns. Watkins’ novel is more surreal than Ibsen’s play (the protagonist grows teeth in her vagina), but the most unnerving aspect remains the mother’s decision to put her mental health and sexual desire first – as Watkins writes, “to behave like a man.”

Tessa Hadley’s new novel, “Free Love,” is smartly situated in that same fusion of defiance and regret, liberation and attachment. Along the way, Hadley alludes to Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” but her story cuts its own path. In fact, “Free Love” begins with a domestic scene that’s almost farcical.

The heroine is Phyllis Fischer, a pretty 40-year-old woman enchanted by her idyllic suburban life. Her thoughtful husband, Roger, is a respected member of the Foreign Office, her two children are a source of great joy, and she regards her Arts and Crafts home “with a protective tenderness.” The year is 1967, but the revolutionary forces tearing apart the rest of the world are just troubling images on the television. Phyllis is “an easy person, easily made happy, glad to make others happy,” Hadley writes. “She was pleased with her life.”

To be clear: She is no Bertha Rochester raging away in the attic; she is not peeling wallpaper off her bedroom wall at night; she will not walk into the sea with Edna Pontellier.


And yet something must be missing from Phyllis’ life, a deficiency of some trace mineral that’s easy to overlook but essential to emotional health. Hadley, as always so attentive to such subtleties, notes that when Phyllis and Roger “were naked they couldn’t quite look at each other without compromise: their glances skidded away obliquely. They were always polite.”

We meet the Fischers one evening just as festivities are about to begin. A young man, Nicholas Knight – the son of an old family friend – is coming for dinner. It’s no trouble; Phyllis likes entertaining. Even when Nicholas arrives an hour late, already bored and a little drunk, Phyllis is too fine a hostess to let such gauche behavior depress her vivacious personality. But his manner, his confirmed disdain, wears on her. “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,” Hadley writes. “Phyllis hadn’t known that the young had this power, to reduce the present of the middle-aged to rubble.”

That sounds like witty hyperbole, and it is, but it’s also an intimation of the demolition that’s coming. Fans of Hadley’s exquisitely written novels know that nothing is accidental or wasted.

Near the end of dinner, an imperious neighbor calls and claims that her boy left one of his sandals in the backyard earlier in the day while playing with Phyllis’ son. Would Phyllis mind terribly retrieving it?

“I suppose I could look for it in the morning,” she replies doubtfully.

“I’m worried about foxes,” the neighbor says. “I think you should go now.”


Phyllis knows she should ignore her bossy neighbor, but in a fit of exasperation she gives in. The whole family and Nicholas, too, rise from the dinner table and tumble out into the yard with flashlights. The narrative shifts nimbly from character to character to catch the feverish temperature of this exotic adventure, this suspension of house rules. With a touch of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” they’re looking for the lost sandal near a garden statue of a nymph. “They were infected with childish irresponsibility,” Hadley writes, “plunging away from the sociable bright lights into darkness, returned inside their private selves under its cover, aware of one another with a renewed intensity.”

Suddenly, camouflaged by darkness, Nicholas kisses Phyllis – and she kisses him back hungrily. “The thud of desire, plummeting through her body like a weight, rearranged everything inside her,” Hadley writes, “changed her beyond recognition; he’s my lover, she thought with finality.”

Delightful as this climactic opening is, the real triumph of Hadley’s novel stems from her judicious portrayal of what happens next when Phyllis realizes she must act on these newfound feelings. With that, “Free Love” twists into a tragicomic exploration of how one woman’s erotic awakening revolutionizes her sense of who she is, what she must do and what that will cost.

“She saw how fatally Roger and the children and her home – the whole domestic edifice of their life together – held her fixed inside their shape,” Hadley writes. “She couldn’t change her own life without bringing everyone else’s down around her.”

That sense of her crucial domestic role is equally empowering and imprisoning. Can Phyllis bear to be the cause of such disruption in the lives of those she loves? Is she willing to play a starring role in scandalized gossip at her friends’ parties? Suddenly, Phyllis’ dilemma reverberates with a whole world straining against old political and cultural shackles.

“More adventures awaited her,” the narrator writes. “She was still alive.”

That doesn’t mean that Phyllis will find what she was expecting – this is, after all, a novel by Tessa Hadley – but she will find herself.

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