Synopses & Reviews
This multigenerational story of the Lennox family spans most of the twentieth century and has its fulcrum in London during the 1960s, that turbulent and contradictory decade. The youth of that time, shattering old bonds and demanding new freedoms, were viewed by many of their elders not as romantic idealists, but as deeply damaged people. Julia, the Lennox clan matriarch and a victim herself of World War II, knows why. "You can't have two dreadful wars and then say 'That's it, and now everything will go back to normal.' They're screwed up, our children, they are the children of war." The aloof, well-to-do Julia and her daughter-in-law, the beleaguered Frances, fight together on behalf of "the kids" and their omnipresent band of dysfunctional friends. Earth Mother Frances's self-sacrifice and passivity are put to the test repeatedly by her ex-husband, 'Comrade' Johnny, the maddening figure whose ceaseless political agenda threatens to tear the Lennox family apart. Here is a memorable picture of a character only recently departed from our scene. "The revolution comes before personal matters" is Johnny's dictum, as he deposits discarded wives and forsaken children in the accommodating house whose emotional center is always the extendable kitchen table, that essential prop of the '60s.
The friends of the family who occupy this table spend their evenings eating, boasting about their shoplifting, and debating the violent ideologies of their time -- blithely unaware that their politics and beliefs will involve them more fully in the world. The latter portion of "The Sweetest Dream recounts the experiences of Sylvia, Johnny's daughter by his second wife, in an Africanvillage dying of AIDS. Her fortitude in confronting the quintessential plague of the 1980s brings this story full-circle and engages it in some of the most profound issues of our era. This novel reflects our recent history like a many-faceted mirror, and it is full of people not easily forgotten, each -- for worse or for better, directly or indirectly -- made by war.
- How would you characterize the relationship between Julia and Frances Lennox? Were there any elements of their living arrangements that surprised you? How did you react when Sylvia came to stay in the Lennox house? Were Julia and Frances's reactions to her arrival typical in any way?
- When Julia discusses the children's problems with Frances, she argues: "It's a good expression, that: "screwed up. I know why they are...They're all war children, that is why. Two terrible wars and this is the result." (138) To what extent do you agree with her analysis? Do you think Julia has a special bias when it comes to the effects of war?
- What role does Comrade Johnny play in the course of the book? Did you understand his political agenda? What were your impressions of his relationships with his children, Colin and Andrew; his wives, Phyllida and Frances, and his mother? How was his personality articulated?
- What did you think of the hodgepodge of characters assembled around the Lennox kitchen table? In what ways are their complaints typical of teenagers? Did they express any adult concerns that you found noteworthy? Discuss your thoughts on Sophie's relationships with Andrew, Roland, and Colin.
- During her liaison with Harold Holman, Frances confronts his idealistic visionof her former husband, Johnny: "And so they lay side by side, and if he was letting go dreams, such dreams, such sweet sweet dreams, she was thinking, Obviously I'm a very selfish person, just as Johnny always said." (120) To what do you think the title, "The Sweetest Dream refers? Does this scene offer any clues?
- How would you describe the scene that takes place at the dinner celebrating the publication of Colin's book? Are the actions and reactions of Frances, Johnny, Colin, and Andrew what you expected, based on their defined roles in the family?
- Rose Trimble, the former Lennox houseguest turned journalist, attacks Colin, Julia, and Silvia in the course of her career, accusing them of Nazi affiliations. How does this turn of events affect Julia? How does it affect Silvia? Is Rose's behavior anticipated by her treatment of the Lennox family when she lives with them?
- What did you think of Sylvia's transformation from a fragile, needy young girl to a courageous doctor in Zimlia? Are there aspects of her work that you found especially interesting, in light of her childhood? What are they? About the Author: Doris Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919 to British parents. In 1925, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Lessing was enrolled in a convent school and, later, an all-girls high school, from which she dropped out at age 13, ending her formal education. At the age of 19, Lessing married and later gave birth to two children. She left her family in order to pursue her own career and interests, and found herself drawn to the Left Book Club, a Communist group. Shortly after she joined the Communist Party, she marriedGottfried Lessing; they married and had a son. By 1949, Lessing was living in London with her son and had published The Grass is Singing, launching her career as a professional writer. During the postwar years, Lessing became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist movement, which she left in 1954. Over the years, Lessing has attempted to accommodate what she admires in novels of the 19th century -- their "climate of ethical judgment" -- to the demands of 20th-century ideas about consciousness and time. After writing the Children of Violence series (1952-1959), Lessing broke new ground with "The Golden Notebook (1962), a daring narrative experiment in which the multiple selves of a contemporary woman are rendered in profound detail. Lessing has also written several works of nonfiction, including "Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 and "Walking in the Shade: 1949 to 1962.
"[A] shimmering, solidly wrought, deeply felt portrait of a divorced 'earth' mother and her passel of teenage live-ins....While the last section lacks the intimate presence of long-suffering Frances, the novel is weightily molded by Lessing's rich life experience and comes to a momentous conclusion." Publishers Weekly
"Lessings most engrossing novel in many years." London Times Literary Supplement
"The dream of a perfect society is the ironic center of Lessing's absorbing new novel..." Kirkus Reviews
"[I]rresistibly alluring. The book summons us to continue reading; we follow it faithfully and, at the end, discover that it does not conclude neatly....Only when it is past do we realize that this has been one of Lessing's most generous works." Penelope Mesic, Book Magazine
"A great story with a Dickensian cast of memorable characters." Evening Standard
"[Lessing's] acute political and artistic awareness makes her vision of our time rich and almost always freshly perceptive." The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
Frances Lennox stands at her stove, bringing another feast to readiness before ladling it out to the youthful crew assembled around her hospitable table her two sons and their friends, girlfriends, ex-friends, and new friends fresh off the street. It's London in the 1960s and everything is being challenged and changed.
But what is being tolerated? Comrade Johnny delivers political tirades, then laps up the adolescent adulation before disappearing into the night to evade the clutches of his responsibilities. Johnny's mother funds all but finds she can embrace only one lost little girl Sylvia, who leaves for a South African village dying of AIDS.
These are the people dreaming the sixties into being and who, on the morning after, woke to find they were the ones taxed with cleaning up and making good.
Frances Lennox ladles out dinner every night to the motley, exuberant, youthful crew assembled around her hospitable tableher two sons and their friends, girlfriends, ex-friends, and ftesh-off-the-street friends. It's the early 1960s and certainly "everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." Except financial circumstances demand that Frances and her sons Eve with her proper ex-mother-in-law. And her ex-husband, Comrade Johnny, has just dumped his second wife's problem child at Frances's feet. And the world's political landscape has suddenly become surreal beyond imagination....
Set against the backdrop of the decade that changed the world forever, The Sweetest Dream is a riveting look at a group of people who dared to dream-and faced the inevitable cleanup afterward -- from one of the greatest writers of our time.
About the Author
Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature for 2007, is oneof the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time. She hasbeen awarded the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature,Spain's Prince of Asturias Prize and Prix Catalunya, and the S.T. DupontGolden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature,as well as a host of other international awards. She lives in north London. Lessing was born Doris May Taylor in Persia (now Iran) on October 22, 1919.Both of her parents were British: Her father, who had been crippled in World War I, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother had been a nurse. In 1925, lured by the promise of getting rich through maize farming, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her mother installed Doris in a covenant school, and then later in an all-girls high school in the capital of Salisbury, from which she soon dropped out.She was 13, and it was the end of her formal education.
Lessing's life has been a challenge to her belief that people cannot resist the currents of their time, as she fought against the cultural and biological imperatives that fated her to sink without a murmur into marriage and motherhood.Lessing believes that she was freer than most people because she became a writer.For her, writing is a process of "setting a distance," taking the "raw, the individual, the uncriticized, the unexamined, into the realm of the general."
Lessing's fiction is deeply autobiographical, much of it emerging out of her experiences in Africa.Drawing upon her childhood memories and her serious engagement with politics and social concerns, Lessing has written about the clash of cultures, the gross injustices of racial inequality, the struggle among opposing elements within an individual's own personality, and the conflict between the individual conscience and the collective good.
Over the years, Lessing has attempted to accommodate what she admires in the novels of the 19th century -- their "climate of ethical judgment" -- to the demands of 20th-century ideas about consciousness and time.After writing the Children of Violence series (1952-1959), a formally conventional bildungsroman (novel of education) about the growth in consciousness of her heroine, Martha Quest, Lessing broke new ground with The Golden Notebook (1962), a daring narrative experiment in which the multiple selves of a contemporary woman are rendered in astonishing depth and detail.Anna Wolf, like Lessing herself, strives for ruthless honesty as she aims to free herself from the chaos, emotional numbness and hypocrisy afflicting her generation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Lessing began to explore more fully the quasi-mystical insight Anna Wolf seems to reach by the end of The Golden Notebook.Her "inner-space fiction" deals with cosmic fantasies Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971), dreamscapes and other dimensions (Memoirs of a Survivor, 1974), and science-fiction probings of higher planes of existence (Canopus in Argos: Archives, 1979-1983).These reflect Lessing's interest, since the 1960s, in Idries Shah, whose writings on Sufi mysticism stress the evolution of consciousness and the belief that individual liberation can come about only if people understand the link between their own fates and the fate of society.
Lessing's other novels include The Good Terrorist (1985) and The Fifth Child (1988); she also published two novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers (The Diary of a Good Neighbor, 1983, and If the Old Could., 1984). In addition, she has written several nonfiction works, including books about cats, a love since childhood. Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 wasjoined by Walking in the Shade: 1949 to 1962, both published by HarperCollins.