‘‘Debbie and Julie,’’ a matter-of-fact fictional account of teenage pregnancy, opens Doris Lessing’s 1989 collection of stories and sketches about London titled The Real Thing. This volume, written toward the end of Lessing’s long, varied, and prolific career, represents a return to the realistic style with which she first gained her literary reputation in the 1950s and ’60s. Though The Real Thing is not considered to be among Lessing’s most significant works, critics have singled out ‘‘Debbie and Julie’’ for praise as a well-crafted and emotionally wrenching example of Lessing’s talent. The story touches on highly relevant issues, such as teen pregnancy, runaways, and parent-child relationships, and serves as an excellent introduction to Lessing’s lengthy body of work.
The story opens with Julie, the protagonist, in labor and leaving the London apartment of Debbie, a prostitute who took her in when she ran away from home five months earlier. Throughout the dramatic events that follow—Julie’s solitary delivery and abandonment of a baby girl and her return to the cold and conservative home of her parents—Julie thinks about all she has learned from her trusting and frank relationship with Debbie. Throughout her many experiments with fiction, Lessing has shown an abiding interest in how individuals—especially women and girls—cope psychologically and practically with society’s labels, assumptions, and unwritten rules. Lessing portrays Julie’s thought process in an understated, realistic style, using the teenager’s harrowing experience to explore issues of intimacy, morality, and identity in a way that is both accessible and complex.