The Real Thing

THE REAL THING, Doris Lessing’s first work of fiction since her novel THE FIFTH CHILD, contains eighteen pieces, ranging in genre from fully developed short stories to essay-like observations of only a few pages. Taken together, the pieces form a multidimensional snapshot of contemporary London, seen from numerous geographical, social, and psychological perspectives. The tone ranges from contemplative—as in “Pleasures of the Park,” a series of anthropomorphical musings on animal behavior in a London park zoo, to shocking—as in “Debbie and Julie,” in which an unwed young woman gives birth in a construction shed with only a derelict dog for companionship. The sketches are often set in public places—a subway car, a sidewalk cafe, an airport cafeteria—from which the characters emerge, appearing at first as they might to a passerby.

The theme is often family dynamics—the bitter estrangement between mother and daughter, the pathetic dependence of a middle-aged woman on her husband, the fierce protectiveness of a mother toward her handicapped child, the twisted triumph of a young man who marries the daughter of his father’s alleged mistress. Social commentary surfaces regularly; in one sketch, “Romance 1988,” a young couple’s symbol of commitment is not an engagement ring but rather the exchange of negative AIDS-test reports.

Lessing cuts to the quick of her characters, often by having one character discover some core truth about another. In “The Pit,” a tall, cool woman who has been brought up in an ordered, protected world flees to Norway when she understands the motive behind the advances of her former husband, who had married a small, dark, loud woman who had survived illegitimacy, three former husbands, and the worst experiences of World War II. In the title story, “The Real Thing,” an American woman engaged to an Englishman accompanies him, his former wife, and that wife’s finance to a weekend cottage to work out the details of their forthcoming marriages—“where to put the children” and “who pays for what”—and in the process discovers and disdains the superficiality of the ex-spouses’ pretense of remaining each other’s best friend.

THE REAL THING is fine Lessing. It is not a monumental work but rather a repository of prose that hasn’t found or won’t find a home elsewhere in her oeuvre.