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.