The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels

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"The Grandmothers: Two women, close friends, fall in love with each other's teenage sons, and these passions last for years, until the women end them, promising a respectable old age." "Victoria and the Staveneys: 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 the world of white privilege and becoming estranged from her." "The Reason for It: Certain to appeal to fans of Shikasta and Memoirs of a Survivor, it describes the birth, flourishing, and decline of a
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"The Grandmothers: Two women, close friends, fall in love with each other's teenage sons, and these passions last for years, until the women end them, promising a respectable old age." "Victoria and the Staveneys: 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 the world of white privilege and becoming estranged from her." "The Reason for It: Certain to appeal to fans of Shikasta and Memoirs of a Survivor, it describes the birth, flourishing, and decline of a culture long, long ago, but with many modern echoes." A Love Child: 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.
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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
The subtitle of this collection of stories—“Four Short Novels”—announces their ambition: each unfolds over decades, tracking with dispassionate precision how youthful notions come to define, and even defeat, a life. Two women seal their friendship by seducing each other’s teen-age son; an aged counselor recounts the decay of a mysterious ancient civilization ruled by a handsome but foolish despot; an impoverished black girl bears the child of a middle-class white boy, and is welcomed by his self-consciously liberal family. Lessing’s scathing intelligence ranges widely, but her tales tend to wobble under the weight of her ideas. She is at her best in the final story, which extends from England to the outposts of empire in South Africa and India during the Second World War. A British soldier has a brief affair with an officer’s wife, and in later years becomes obsessed with the idea that he might have fathered a son, a possibility that appears to him as the key to the life he should have led.
The New York Times
Lessing, who deals in making the incredible real, does so here: against all likelihood she convinces the reader that war roams the world quite apart from its battlefields. She has never written better. — Richard Eder
The Washington Post
Lessing's new book, The Grandmothers, is a collection of four novellas, and it shows that at the age of 84 she remains firmly committed to the belief that all "isms" -- and even most ordinary emotions -- are forms of self-delusion. Lessing isn't a cynic, for she still believes in the value (and existence) of truth, and she lacks the injured sense of self-pity that motivates the cynic. But there is great bitterness in this new volume. The surprise, perhaps, is that something approaching empathy occasionally peeks out, too. — Susie Linfield
Publishers Weekly
The latest by the prolific Lessing is a collection of four novellas that vary considerably in quality, with the best of them, "Victoria and the Staveneys" and "A Love Child," showing her at the top of her very impressive form. They are both at once intimately detailed yet infinitely expansive in their suggestions of a lost world only recoverable by a profoundly observant writer. In "Victoria" a young London black woman of charm and great fortitude survives and transcends the hardest of all assimilations: acceptance by a free-thinking, liberal white family. The shades of racial and social subtext here are evoked with a sure hand that even a Zadie Smith could envy. "A Love Child" powerfully evokes a strange aspect of a familiar time: a terrible ocean voyage, during WWII, by a hapless British regiment sent to the Far East to help protect India against Japanese invasion. James Reid, a young conscript, puts ashore in South Africa in the course of this nightmare voyage and embarks on a liaison that transforms the rest of his life. The detail and almost hallucinatory power with which an era and an ethos are recaptured are Lessing at her best, comparable to Ian McEwan's amazing war scenes in Atonement. The other stories are on a much lower level. The title story is about an odd relationship between two older women and each other's young sons; it is an original idea, but curiously lame in the telling. And "The Reason for It" is one of those peculiar tales in the SF/fantasy genre that Lessing does well enough, but that never seem to be quite her m tier. Still, the two prize pieces here are well worth the price. (Jan. 9) Forecast: Fans of the writer will be amply rewarded by the better half of the book, her best work in some years. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
It would be difficult to say which is the best story in this collection of novellas, because each is studiously crafted and vastly different from the others. "The Grandmothers" depicts two middle-aged best friends who fall in love with each other's son. "Victoria and the Staveneys" is the tale of a mixed-race child troubled by the class differences that are a part of her heritage. In "The Reason for It," the decline of a glorious culture is explained by one of its leaders, and in "A Love Child," an ex-soldier longs to know the child he is sure he fathered on a brief reprieve from the horrors of World War II. Lessing, the virtuoso author of The Golden Notebook and many other works, is at the top of her game. These novellas are richly written if a bit dark; the characters struggle through difficult circumstances not of their own making, and their options are not always that good. Nonetheless, this is a brilliantly written book, and it is heartily recommended for most libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/03.]-Amy Ford, St. Mary's Cty. Memorial Lib., Lexington Park, MD Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Four novellas demonstrating that 84-year-old author (The Sweetest Dream, 2002, etc.) still boasts a range and power few writers half her age can muster. Lessing opens with "The Grandmothers," a portrait of taboo-defying sex and a friendship beyond ordinary bounds. Roz and Lil form in girlhood a bond so close that it eventually drives away Roz's husband. The women's two young boys are best friends too, but after Lil's spouse dies in a car crash, her sensitive, "nervy" son Ian seems to pine-until, at age 17, he climbs into Roz's bed. Her son Tom spends the very next night with Lil, and for more than a decade the foursome maintain a secret idyll, its meaning and consequences addressed with penetrating psychological complexity. In "Victoria and the Staveneys," a short masterpiece of sharp social realism, a young black girl's chance connection in London with a family of wealthy white liberals changes her life. Victoria's personal struggles (poignant, but never sentimentalized) stingingly contrast with the Staveneys' comfortable journey through two decades in late-20th-century Britain. "The Reason for It," an allegory of civilization's decline in the mode of Lessing's Canopus in Argos series, will not appeal to everyone, but it's meticulously crafted with her customary serious intelligence. "A Love Child" practically flaunts the author's ability to vividly enter into and convey almost any experience: an English soldier's nightmarish ocean journey on a WWII troop ship, a Cape Town wife's vague feelings of privileged discontent, their almost hallucinatory four-day romance, and the soldier's subsequent, desperately dull administrative service in India, which leaves plenty of time for his obsessivememories of the affair that will shape his postwar life as well. Class distinctions, political unrest, emotional torment: Lessing nails them all in blunt prose that disdains elegance for the sterner pleasures of truthful observation. When you're dealing with an author whose track record spans a half-century and paradigm-altering works like The Golden Notebook, it's too easy to simply praise another excellent effort. Where is this woman's Nobel Prize?
Michiko Kakutani
“A LOVE CHILD possesses both a palpable immediacy and a haunting afterlife.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“The four pieces that make up The Grandmothers are masterpieces of artistry and intellect.”
“Stunning … showing Lessing’s trademark incisiveness.”
New York Times Book Review
“[Lessing] has never written better.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Lessing is without peer.”
Miami Herald
“Powerful… beautifully realized.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060530105
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/6/2004
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Doris  Lessing
Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, Doris Lessing was one of the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time, the recipient of a host of international awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature, the James Tait Black Prize for best biography, Spain's Prince of Asturias Prize and Prix Catalunya, and the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature.


"Doris Lessing is the kind of writer who has followers, not just readers," Lesley Hazleton once observed. But the Nobel Prize-winning Lessing, whose classic novel The Golden Notebook was embraced as a feminist icon, has seldom told her followers exactly what they wanted to hear. For much of her career, she has frustrated readers' expectations and thwarted would-be experts on her work, penning everything from traditional narratives to postmodern novels to mystic fables.

Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) and grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father made an unsuccessful attempt to farm maize. Though she loved living on the farm, her family life was often tense and unhappy. Lessing married at the age of 20, but three years later, feeling stifled by colonial life and increasingly distressed by the racism of her society, she joined the Communist Party, "because they were the only people I had ever met who fought the color bar in their lives."

Soon after that, she left her husband and first two children to marry fellow Communist Gottfried Lessing, with whom she had a son. They divorced, and she took her son with her to England, where she published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, to high acclaim. After several more novels, including the semi-autobiographical series Children of Violence, Lessing wrote The Golden Notebook, a postmodern, fragmentary narrative about a writer's search for identity. The Golden Notebook gained a passionate following in the feminist movement and "left its mark upon the ideas and feelings of a whole generation of women," as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote.

To Lessing's dismay, she was frequently cited as a "feminist writer" after that. Yet as Diane Johnson pointed out in a 1978 review of Stories, Lessing "also understands men, politics, social class, striving, religion, loneliness and lust." Johnson added: "Mrs. Lessing is the great realist writer of our time, in the tradition of the major Continental novelists of the 19th century, particularly Stendhal and Balzac, but also Turgenev and Chekhov -- a masculine tradition with which she shares large moral concerns, an earnest and affirmative view of human nature, and a dead-eye for social types."

But Lessing, who once called realist fiction "the highest form of prose writing," soon launched into a science-fiction series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, which baffled many of her fans. Lessing used the term "space fiction" for the series, which recounts human history from the points of view of various extraterrestrial beings. Though Lessing gained some new readers with her Canopus series, her early admirers were relieved when she came back to Earth in The Fifth Child, the story of a monstrous child born to ordinary suburban parents, which Carolyn Kizer deemed "a minor classic." Later novels like Mara and Dann included elements of fantasy and science fiction, but recently, with the publication of The Sweetest Dream, Lessing has returned to domestic fiction in the realist mode, which many critics still see as her best form.

Throughout her life, Lessing has been drawn to systems for improving human experience -- first Marxism, then the psychiatry of R. D. Laing, then Sufi mysticism. But her yearning for a single, transcendent truth coexists with a sharp awareness of the contradictory mix of vanities, passions, and aggressions that make up most human lives. As Margaret Drabble noted, Lessing is "one of the very few novelists who have refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand."

Good To Know

Lessing's African stories painted a grim picture of white colonialism and the oppression of black Africans, and in 1956, Lessing was declared a prohibited alien in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. In 1995, she was able to visit her daughter and grandchildren in South Africa, where her works are now acclaimed for the same content that was once condemned.

Though she was briefly allied with the Communist Party in Salisbury, Lessing has frequently insisted that the picture of her as a political activist is exaggerated. "I am always being described as having views that I never had in my life," she once told the Guardian. She has, however, been an outspoken critic of the racial politics of South Africa, and she once turned down the chance to become a Dame of the British Empire on the grounds that there is no British Empire.

To demonstrate how difficult it is for new writers to get published, Lessing sent a manuscript to her publishers under the pseudonym Jane Somers. Her British publisher turned it down, as did several other prominent publishers (though her American editor detected the ruse and accepted the book). The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published as the work of Jane Somers, to little fanfare and mixed critical reviews. Lessing followed it with a sequel, If the Old Could..., before revealing her identity as the author of both.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Doris May Tayler (birth name), Jane Somers (pseudonym)
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 22, 1919
    2. Place of Birth:
      Persia (now Iran)
    1. Date of Death:
      November 17, 2013
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England

Table of Contents

The Grandmothers 1
Victoria and the Staveneys 57
The Reason for It 131
A Love Child 191
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Reading Group Guide


With four novellas in a single volume, Doris Lessing once again proves that she is unequalled in her ability to capture the truth of the human condition. In the title novella, two women, close friends from childhood, fall in love with each other's teenage sons, and these passions last for years. In Victoria and the Staveneys, a poor black girl finds herself pregnant by the son of a liberal middle-class family. Her daughter grows up, torn between the world of white privilege and that of her mother. The Reason for It, the third novella in the collection, will appeal to fans of Shikasta and Memoirs of a Survivor. It describes the birth, flourishing, and decline of a culture long, long ago, but with many modern echoes. In A Love Child, 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.

Topics for Discussion

  1. Did Roz and Lil do something wrong in loving each others' son?
  2. Why is Victoria wary about Mary receiving the life she, herself, always wanted?
  3. Does the final note by the archaeologist vindicate the narrator?
  4. What is the significance of James' final thought?

About the Author Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Persia in 1919 and moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia when she was five years old. She went to England in 1949 and has lived there ever since. She is the author of more than thirty books -- novels, stories, reportage, poems, and plays. Doris Lessing lives in London.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted May 27, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Four fascinating tales

    I'm still trying to work out how long a piece of writing has to be if it's called a novel. The Grandmothers is a set of four "short novels," according to its cover. But how is that different from four novellas?

    The first, and title, story is an intriguing family tale of just 53 pages. Two fathers. Two daughters. Two grandmothers. And two mothers who enter only peripherally into visits to a seaside restaurant. The waitress envies their perfect lives, which maybe aren't as perfect as they seem, and the reader is drawn to view images of past innocence with almost reluctant curiosity. A startling, odd, sad tale, and a fascinating read.

    The second story, of Victoria and the Staveneys, is an all-too-real description of a promising life turned around by circumstance, and a vivid depiction of the tolerance, love and affection that accompany expectations. I wanted more for Victoria, and in the end, I guess she got more than she was offered. In the end she wasn't who anyone tried to make her, but maybe she wasn't all she could have made herself either.

    The Reason for it is the shortest tale of the four, an odd story of how quickly a culture falls apart. It reads innocently and tragically through the eyes of an elderly man, but it's echoes of modern life can't be entirely accidental.

    And finally, A Love Child, at 117 pages, is an amazing depiction of wartime Britain and the life of a man who grows up between the wars. Introduced to communism, he finds poetry. Introduced to sickness, he finds love. Introduced to success, he keeps himself to himself and tries to analyze the reason others care for him. But through it all he misses the truth of how he should care for others. A sad story, but totally engrossing.

    So now I still don't know how long a novel has to be. But perhaps if you're a writer of Doris Lessing's caliber it really doesn't matter. I'd certainly recommend the book, and I enjoyed the time spent meeting her characters.

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