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The Summer Before the Dark    by Doris Lessing order for
Summer Before the Dark
by Doris Lessing
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2009 (1973)

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* * *   Reviewed by Elizabeth Schulenburg

Kate Brown is the ideal British middle-class housewife. Her home is lovely and well-maintained, a gathering place for family and friends. Her four children are smart and happy, and with the exception of the youngest, well on their way to making a place for themselves in the world. Her husband is loving and prosperous, and if he has strayed outside the bounds of marital fidelity in the past, he always returns, because Kate is loving and understanding, and they have a strong marriage.

So when, at the age of forty-five, Kate faces a summer in which something extraordinary occurs - nobody needs her to do anything for them at all - she unwittingly sets in motion a series of events that leads her to examine the path of her life thus far, and make decisions about the future she begins to envision for herself. 'The truth was, she was becoming more and more uncomfortably conscious not only that the things she said, and a good many of the things she thought, had been taken down off a rack and put on, but that what she really felt was something else again.'

The Summer Before the Dark is a very internal novel - there is little to no dialogue through the majority of the narrative, because Lessing chooses to tell the story almost exclusively from inside Kate's head. We read Kate's internal monologue, her thoughts, fears, desires, and discoveries, and glean the truth of her life from what is said and unsaid. As Kate makes choices that take her farther away from her family, and meets new people who challenge her comfortable place in society, Lessing allows the reader to experience these moments along with Kate, and we gain a unique insight into the mind of this woman.

'All those years were now seeming like a betrayal of what she really was. While her body, her needs, her emotions - all of herself - had been turning like a sunflower after one man, all that time she had been holding in her hands something else, the something precious, offering it in vain to her husband, to her children, to everyone she knew - but it had never been taken, had not been noticed. But this thing she offered, without knowing she was doing it, which had been ignored by herself and by everyone else, was what was real in her.'

Some readers have hailed The Summer Before the Dark as a feminist anthem - some as an elegy to growing older. Kate's journey encompasses both as she questions the decisions she has made which have brought her life to this point, and wonders what her future will hold as the ties that bind her to that life start to loosen. This is not the kind of novel one reads for fun - it is questioning, and often bleak, and has neither a variety of characters nor a fast-paced plot to hold the reader's attention. It is, however, a fascinating look into the mind of a fairly ordinary woman, and for the reader who desires something substantial to sink their teeth into, this will be a rewarding and memorable novel.

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