Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Mills of Love

Adore: A Novella by Doris Lessing


Lil and Roz have been best friends since they were little girls. Their respective sons have followed suit, and now it looks like their granddaughters are following the same path. All this sounds like the epitome of perfection, and that's exactly the exterior they want everyone to see.

I am ashamed to say that I never read anything by Doris Lessing before. This seems strange because, as a person and as an author, there was much I admired about her. Despite this, I failed at my attempt to read her "Diaries of Jane Somers," the two stories from the 80s she wrote under a pseudonym. That I never attempted to read Lessing again is to my detriment. Thankfully, this novella piqued my interest to try again.

One thing I learned about Lessing is that you cannot easily classify her work, despite the labels that people try to pin on her, particularly as a feminist. This novel does seem to take on some undertones of feminism, even as it denies them on the surface. This isn't so much of a dichotomy as it is a way to show how certain elements of feminism can creep into the life of a woman who herself cannot be considered a feminist. I have a hunch that Lessing's point is that labels put unnaturally stark boundaries on people, and her mission was to blur those lines.

With this book, Lessing starts us at the end of the story with the climax, which takes place in a contemporary setting. She then goes back to the beginning to show us everything that led up to this ultimate moment of drama. That is, a story of two women from apparently affluent backgrounds for whom marriage and children are their expected futures, with which they comply with grace. Unfortunately, these two have a more-than-sisterly-like friendship, which doesn't always mesh perfectly with having husbands, despite their ability to show society that they are model homemakers and mothers. That both women find ways not to bend to their husbands' wills is a type of feminist stance, and yet, they do so with such subtlety that their rebellion is only visible from within.

That their young sons become like brothers is not a problem, and in fact, makes their relationship even stronger. However, once they are young adults and both of their fathers are out of the picture, things change. It is here that Lessing inserts a quiet and insidious aspect into the relationships of these four people, which could be ruinous, but instead has the opposite effect.

In this, Lessing treads quite a fine line between disaster and victory for these characters. Her genius is in how we believe her balancing act will get them artfully from one point to another without much more than the tiniest faltering, and then she cuts the tightrope. At the same time, her readers will be holding their breaths throughout this tale, even though they've already gasped at the final fall at the beginning of the book. Furthermore, she does this with the simplest of prose written in a tone that borders on snobbish gossip, making it even more compelling to read.

If all of this isn't literary brilliance, I don't know what is. This book has made me interested in reading more of Lessing's work, and I fully intend to start catching up on what I've missed. I cannot give it less than five out of five stars, and sincerely recommend it. 

(By the way, this was made into a movie in 2013 by the same name, which isn't bad, but the novella is better. This was originally published as "The Grandmothers" in 2003.)

"Adore" by Doris Lessing is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel blog.)

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