An Unplanned Life

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

I am very glad to have finally read Doris Lessing.  Since her Nobel Prize win I have been very interested in her, but just haven’t mustered up the motivation to dive into something epic like The Golden Notebook.  The first thing you’ll notice about Lessing is her writing style.  She writes in somewhat convoluted sentences, but uses them to convey her meaning just right.  For example a sentence may have several exclamatory phrases set off between dashes.  Sentences structured this way can make one easily lose sight of the direction of the statement, but once one recovers, the meaning is clearer than it would have been otherwise.  In terms of plot, though, this is the story of a young family with one goal in mind, to create a happy and blissful life.  At first, they are successful.  The buy a large house and fill it with four children and extended family and are delighted to be at the center of it.  However, Ben, the fifth and unplanned child, enters the picture and the family’s course of life is forever changed.  Eventually Harriet, Ben’s mother, faces a decision that will stay with her for the rest of her life, whether or not to bring Ben back once he has been admitted to a mental hospital in which he will surely die.  She opts to bring him home and therefore eliminates the possibility of happiness for the rest of her family (husband David and children Luke, Helen, Jane and Paul).

Certain maxims jumped out at me while reading this novel.  First, Ben invades the “ordinariness” that the Lovatts so desperately want.  In doing so, Lessing tells the reader that one cannot be prepared for life as it contains too much unknown.  Counting on your preparations to save you is ultimately futile.  Second, demonstrates well the idea that the old ways of life do not have answers for new problems.  The old way is manifest in Dr. Brett and the new problem is the recognition of Ben.

It is true that this novel does not have a hero, or a villain either.  It is a simple story of a family that tried to attain happiness, failed in many ways, ultimately survived.


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