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37-Nov-Dec-2008
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A-Alfred and EmilyNobel laureate Doris Lessing, author of the 1962 feminist classic The Golden Notebook, struggles to come to terms with the blighted lives of her parents in this innovative "autobiography"—her reputedly final book. See our Book by Book profile of Lessing in Issue 9, Mar/Apr 2004.

The Story: In this tender yet unflinching memoir-cum-novel, 88-year-old Doris Lessing recalls her parents, "these sick and half crazy people," whose promising young lives were dismally shaped by World War I. Captain Alfred Tayler, who suffered the loss of his leg, married Emily McVeagh, the nurse who cared for him, after Emily’s fiancé drowned. The couple eked out a meager living on a dusty maize farm in colonial Southern Rhodesia, haunted by memories of violence and suffering. The first half of the book imagines the lives they might have led in a world without war—and their divergent paths to happiness. The second half describes them as they truly were—unhappy, ruined, and shattered by the First World War.
Harper. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0060834889

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lessing] recreates them with all the anger and unsentimental clarity of her best work, yet adds qualities not often associated with her: generosity and grace. … In its generosity of spirit, its shaped and contained fury, Alfred and Emily is … an extraordinary, unconventional addition to Lessing’s autobiography." Caryn James

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In juxtaposing fiction and nonfiction in one volume and clearly delineating which is which, Alfred & Emily raises questions about our changing attitudes toward memories as we age; about the different strengths of fiction and nonfiction when it comes to exploring character; and about the inherently subjective nature of memoir. As is usual in Lessing’s fluidly conversational prose, ideas take precedence over stylistic perfection: Alfred & Emily may be more an exercise than a polished tour de force, but what a thought-provoking exercise it is." Heller McAlpin

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The novella isn’t as satisfying as the nonfiction portion of the book. … Turn to section two, ‘Alfred and Emily; Two Lives,’ and the voices—both Lessing’s and her parents’—are alive, fluid, anxious, believable." Michael Upchurch

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"I was fascinated by the idea, and by her boldness in rearranging the past so that her parents could be happy, but I confess I wasn’t engaged by the lives she gives them. … Except for a few vivid scenes, their story is bland and unseductive, unlike the hard and harrowing reality that takes over in the last half, a series of essays on the real Alfred and Emily, and Lessing’s early life in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe." Mary Grimm

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"This portrait of her parents is familiar in outline from Ms. Lessing’s 1994 autobiography, Under My Skin, but whereas the author adopted a detached, matter-of-fact tone in that volume, she writes here with a visceral immediacy, conjuring the awful, unrelieved hardship of her parents’ lives in Rhodesia, and the aching disappointment that shrouded their daily existence. … [The] fictional portion of the book lacks all the beautiful specificity of the memoir part of the volume, which shimmers with precisely remembered details about the African countryside, Ms. Lessing’s parents’ house in the bush and her own difficulties negotiating the rocky ground of her girlhood." Michiko Kakutani

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"The [novella’s] plot isn’t terribly gripping, but the characters and settings are rich, and the story is touching for what Lessing has set out to do: give her parents the happiness that they never had in life; in doing so, she erases her own existence. … Lessing’s memoir of her childhood is insightful and evocative, if a bit meandering in structure." Jenny Shank

Christian Science Monitor 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[The novella] drifts into abstraction as it goes along and both the fictional Alfred and the fictional Emily lose their verisimilitude as they age. It is only with the addition of the later material that versions of Alfred and Emily come to life." Marjorie Kehe

Critical Summary

In Alfred & Emily, groundbreaking author Doris Lessing returns to the subject matter explored in her 1994 autobiography, Under My Skin. Fans will recognize common themes and details, but Lessing’s outlook and tone have softened. Critics were touched by her genuine attempt to understand her overbearing, self-absorbed mother, though her writing is still tinged with resentment. Lessing’s fictional novella is no fairy tale, but most critics found it unconvincing. Why invent a fictional life if it isn’t compelling? They much preferred the memoir: its somber tone and gritty details bring the unhappy couple wrenchingly and heartrendingly to life, its fractured, unconventional structure reminiscent of that of The Golden Notebook. While Lessing has penned a powerful and unsparing portrait of a marriage framed by the physical and psychological damages of war, a few critics suggest that general readers might do best to start with Under My Skin, The Golden Notebook, or another of Lessing’s novels.

Also by the Author

The Golden Notebook (1962): In this landmark, postmodern classic, leftist writer Anna Wulf, coping with personal, political, and professional misfortunes, composes her memoirs.