It is the rare literary epic which sees most of the novel’s action taking place in a kitchen, but this is the case with Doris Lessing’s The Sweetest Dream, a sprawling work encompassing a span of time from the idealistic ‘60s to the greedy and disillusioned ‘80s.
Complete with all the political ideology inherent in that time frame, the work studies the radicals and outcasts who find refuge in the home of an often unwilling German matriarch of an English family.
"Family" is a loose definition of the Lennox household. There is Julia, the aforementioned expatriate who lives alone atop her family house, her daughter-in-law Frances and Frances’ two nearly-grown children with Julia’s son. But there are also hangers-on, other teens who have soured on their own families. And there is the man whose periodic appearances are the single greatest impediment to the blood relatives becoming a functioning family: Communist rabble-rouser Johnny Lennox, son to Julia, ex-husband to Frances and frequent abandoner of his lovers.
Julia first meets Frances shortly after Johnny has left her with the two children. It is a meeting that forms a schism between the uptight older woman and the earthy new mother:
That shameless young woman half-naked there, with her great oozing breasts, the baby’s noisy sucking.…Julia felt that Frances was forcing her, most brutally, to look directly at an unclean unseemly fount of life that she had never had to acknowledge….Julia had refused to breastfeed; too near the animal, she felt, but did not dare say.
Frances also becomes a maternal figure to the displaced teens with an ease that Julia could never show. The unconscious envy that Julia feels is dispelled with the arrival of yet another cast-off, a stepdaughter of Johnny’s who is an emotional wreck. Julia takes charge of Sylvia’s care, removing from the girl a childish nickname in a symbol of her rebirth. Sylvia becomes her true child.
It is Julia’s ambition for Sylvia that ultimately pushes the girl away from her, as unexpected academic success leads to a life-changing stint as a doctor in a poverty-stricken African village. The change in scenery is intentionally jarring and, even though many of the now-grown teens who once supped together meet again in this continent at a mock version of Frances’ comforting dinner table, the novel never feels quite as much at home in Zimlia as it does in Hampstead. Part of this is the absence of Frances, the self-sacrificing actress and journalist who emerges as the most compelling character.
The narrator’s voice is an important presence in the story as well. It is not the usual omniscient character concerned only with the time of the novel; instead, it is told through the eyes of someone fully aware of what has occurred since the novel’s setting. This hindsight traps the novel not only in the time of its setting but also more conspicuously in the time of its composition.
Lessing also eschews the standard formula of fiction writing by "telling" rather than "showing" much of the action. Rather than being bogged down by expository writing, however, the reader is treated with deftly handled backstory that supports the powerful scenes that she does include.
Many of these moments occur as a direct result of conflict between the generations, whether it’s the bombast of "Comrade" Johnny’s dogmatic rebuke of his son’s novel or the tender regret of society’s change in values, as when an exhausted Sylvia brings a fellow medical resident of the opposite sex to sleep in her room at Julia’s house:
It seemed to Julia terrible that any young man, "a colleague," should come home with Sylvia and sleep in her room….It should matter that a man was in a young woman’s room.
Suffused with the politics and economics of several eras, the novel is most effective when the characters that hold these views are together. The uneasy relationships surrounding the communal dining room table that forms the centerpiece of "The Sweetest Dream" allow for a greater understanding of humanity than political ideology could ever afford.