The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels by Doris Lessing

Four Short Novels by Doris LessingI have just read Doris Lessing for the first time! I picked up The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels at my local library and finished it in just two days.

Lessing’s writing is every bit as delightful and moving as I had been led to believe. So much so that I think I’d like to read some of her more famous works such as The Grass Is Singing, or The Golden Notebook.

The little I’ve read about Lessing makes her sound like such a remarkable woman: born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature, and still actively writing!

The four short novels in The Grandmothers (published 2004) are:

The Grandmothers 1
Two women, close friends, fall in love with each other’s teenage sons, and these passions last for years, until the women end them, in their respectable old age.

Victoria and the Staveneys 57
A poor black girl has a baby with the son of a liberal middle-class family and finds that her little girl is slowly being absorbed into a world of white privilege and becoming estranged from her.

The Reason for It 131
Certain to appeal to fans of Shikasta and Memoirs of a Survivor, it describes the birth, growth, and decline of a culture long ago, but with many modern echoes.

A Love Child 191
A soldier in World War II, during the dangerous voyage to India around the Cape, falls in love on shore leave and remains convinced that a love child resulted from the wartime romance.

Here are some discussion questions I found about this book:

  • Did Roz and Lil do something wrong in loving each others’ son?
  • Why is Victoria wary about Mary receiving the life she, herself, always wanted?
  • Does the final note by the archaeologist vindicate the narrator?
  • What is the significance of James’ final thought?
  • In the title novel — The Grandmothers — an adult Tom briefly refers to his life with his mother, her closest friend, and his closest friend in these terms: “Down there, I’m not free.” Discuss the idea of personal freedom in the novel — who is free to do what, and what choices are the characters “free” to make?
  • The tone in the title novel is noticeably cool and analytical. Why do you think Lessing chooses to tell the story in this way?
  • For a novel so focused on the personal, there is great care given to describing the physical worlds of these people. Discuss the importance of geographical elements in the story: the rough sea and the calm bay, the orderly, “perfect” land around it. The arid climate to which Harold and briefly Tom moves, and the brush thorns that litter the ground outside of the desert town.
  • In Victoria and the Staveneys, the author chooses to withhold the fact that Victoria is black until the fourth page (after much physical description). Why do you feel she delays this revelation?
  • One is tempted to level scorn on the Staveneys, and yet Lessing also shows them to be oddly touching, moral even. What are we meant to think about them? Do you find your response is of a personal, emotional nature of more removed? Furthermore, who is “good” in the family?
  • Does the action of Victoria and the Staveneys feel determined, or proscribed? If this is social commentary, then what are we taught; if this is simply the hand of the author, what does this reveal about her own social vision?
  • Victoria, Thomas and Edward are obviously products of their respective environments. How are they the results of their parentage? Does this parentage play into the above-mentioned notion of determination or fate?
  • What parallels do you see between the world of The Reason for It and our own?
  • The protagonist of A Love Child, James, goes through several transformations, the first, from England to South Africa; the second, from Africa to India. What precipitates these changes? Does James feel like the same person with Daphne as he was with Donald back in England? Is this change believable to you? What is Lessing trying to say about one’s mutability, particularly as a result of one’s caring and compassion for others?
  • What themes connect these novels?

Enjoy!

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