The first two novellas in this collection – The Grandmothers and Victoria and the Staveneys – are great stories, engaging you in the complexities of the characters lives, raising questions for you to ponder as you read. The titular story is about two best friends who have affairs with each others’ seventeen-year-old sons. The affairs last for many years, until the men are eventually pressured to marry and social conventions push the women to end their secret relationships. Some reviewers have found this improbable, but I just shrugged it off – you love who you love, whether it’s considered appropriate or not, and I thought The Grandmothers was an interesting story about unlikely, difficult love that isn’t swayed by the age barriers even when the rest of society is.
In Victoria and the Staveneys, a young black girl (Victoria) struggles through a difficult childhood of poverty and hardship. Later, she has an affair with a boy from a liberal white family (The Staveneys) that she has idolised since she spent a night sleeping over at their home. She falls pregnant, and when she finally decides to tell the family about the child, they are surprisingly happy to have a black relative. Their liberal sensibilities make the child’s race a point of pride for them – a sign of open-mindedness and belief in racial equality. Whether they really embody the attitudes they wish to portray is a debate that runs throughout the story.
Both The Grandmothers and Victoria and the Staveneys move briskly and juggle difficult questions without weighing you down. Easily, pleasantly entangled, I breezed through them.
And then I hit a dead end. The third and fourth novellas – The Reason for It and The Love Child – are dreadfully boring with little or no rewards for the time it takes to slog through them, comparatively short as they are.
The Reason for It is a political fantasy, the story of the rise and fall of a group of cities. The story is narrated by the last surviving member of The Twelve, a group of administrators who were responsible for maintaining the prosperity of the cities. The narrator, like the rest of The Twelve, has for many years been baffled and saddened by the seemingly cruel and destructive actions of the cities’ latest leader, DeRod. He slowly dismantles the progressive policies put in place by earlier rulers, favouring military might instead, and the advanced society deteriorates. In theory , this is interesting, but in practice it’s a flop. Lessing is very vague in this tale – rather than starting by presenting the context, she throws you right in. You get an idea of what’s going on easily enough, but the story remains blurry and unremarkable throughout. The ‘revelation’ of DeRod’s true motives at the end is equally mundane.
The final story, The Love Child, starts off well enough, but then its protagonist is sent into the army for World War 2 and for ages all you read about is the boring life in the barracks, and then a dreadful life at sea, characterised by filth and sickness. There is a brief respite, as the plot picks up for a passionate but unwise love affair, and then we’re back in the banality of army life, for an even longer stretch, until at last the war ends and the story speeds up again and sprints to another forgettable ending. If I hadn’t promised to read this book in its entirety I would have stopped early on in this novella and not missed anything worth my time and effort.
The difference between the first two novellas and the second two is the use of plot. I think Lessing is often a great storyteller, but not a great writer. The Grandmothers and Victoria and the Staveneys both have dramatic, fast-paced storylines; The Reason for It and Love Child do not. With better writing this would not matter – the language would grab and hold the reader even if the plot can’t. But I find Lessing’s writing flat and functional. She’s not a bad writer, but her writing only carries the story and the characters – it is nothing special in itself.
So if you’re interested in reading Lessing and are considering picking up this collection, then go ahead. I highly recommend the first two novellas. I just suggest that you stop right there and not waste your time on the second two.