Lessing’s best in years. She remains, in vigorous old age, one of the world’s essential writers.


The dream of a perfect society is the ironic center of Lessing’s absorbing new novel: her 24th, published in her 82nd year.

It’s set mostly in the 1960s in Hampstead, a suburb of London, where protagonist Frances Lennox gets by as a columnist for the leftist newspaper The Defender, and de facto earth mother to a crowd of teenaged runaways and misfits as well as her own two fatherless sons. Frances’s own “dream” (of a life in the theater) is thwarted by the unreliability of her ex-husband Jolyon (a.k.a. “Comrade Johnny”), a lifelong revolutionary activist and poseur whose stubborn devotion to socialism and Communism in all their permutations (including Stalinism) has left him no time or energy for family obligations. Lessing (Ben, in the World, 2000, etc.) energetically contrasts Johnny’s political fantasies to the reality of his stepdaughter Sylvia, a selfless physician who pits herself against the catastrophe of AIDS by running a free hospital (during the 1980s) in the poverty-stricken African republic of Zimlia (which is, pretty clearly, Zimbabwe). The several stories that develop from such contrasts are rather inelegantly cobbled together, but Lessing is after bigger game than narrative unity: The Sweetest Dream is an anatomy of women’s lives throughout the postwar period, and it comes unforgettably alive in notably detailed explorations of its characters’ conflicting (and conflicted) struggles. To be sure, Johnny Lennox is a caricature (though one of Dickensian richness), as are the feminists whom Lessing can't resist vilifying (yellow journalist Rose Trimble, for example, and effulgently absurd Julie Hackett, who detects pro-male bias even in the scientific fact that only the female mosquito carries the malaria germ). Sylvia is arguably too saintly, but her ordeal is made quite moving. Lessing triumphs, though, with both the stoical, sentient figure of Frances and that of Johnny’s mother Julia, a German-born widow whose own complicated relationships to the burdens her son thoughtlessly imposes on “his” women are simultaneously haughty, principled, and heroic.

Lessing’s best in years. She remains, in vigorous old age, one of the world’s essential writers.

Pub Date: Feb. 10, 2002

ISBN: 0-06-621334-7

Page Count: 496

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2001

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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