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23rd April
2011
written by Steph

Doris Lessing is one of those authors who intimidates me. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, but somehow I got it into my mind that she’s one of those smart difficult authors (her winning the Nobel Prize probably has something to do with it), and so I’ve been terrified to try her. Do any of you know what I mean? You pick up an author with a “scary” name and you start to read and even though you find the text is actually really accessible, there’s this part of your brain telling you that it’s going to get hard so you slam on the brakes and pick up Bridget Jones’s Diary instead. In this case, I think the fear that coursed through me stemming from the knowledge that I was finally reading something by Lessing worked in my favor since The Fifth Child is a very creepy book by its own rights. Reading the back cover you’d be forgiven if you assumed it would be very similar to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I promise you, The Fifth Child is very much its own book and is a very different look at the whole “evil child” trope. The novel begins with the meeting and subsequent union of Harriet and David Lovatt, who decide very early on that they are going to rebel against current societal standards and have a large family. They buy an expansive house that is well beyond their means, which requires David to get a commuting job and accept money from his wealthy father in order to make ends meet. Even though Harriet and David’s parents counsel them to wait with respect to starting a family (and indeed that is initially their intentions as they want to be better grounded financially), the two soon find themselves embarking on the journey that is parenthood far sooner than anticipated. Before they know it, they have four children with a fifth on the way. Only this fifth pregnancy is much more difficult on Harriet, violent almost, and when Ben is born, it is quiet apparent that he is not quite of this world… One thing I found so interesting about The Fifth Child is that so much of the novel seems to not even be about Ben, but more about the notion of family and what it is we value. Harriet and David are horrifically irresponsible, living well beyond their means and having more children than they can reasonably support. In order to have a halfway decent life, they must rely on their own parents for both emotional and financial support, because truly they are woefully ill-equipped to manage a family on their owns. It is clear early on that Lessing does not approve of their actions, and the introduction of Ben is really just the icing on the cake. In many ways, the Lovatt’s greediness for more children is their own undoing… up until Ben, the family is happy and harmonious, but Ben makes their lives a nightmare, causing discord and misery, and ultimately, the Lovatts wind up sacrificing everything they once valued and yearned for because of him. In many ways, The Fifth Child is a cautionary tale, not necessarily about having children, but about being happy with what we are given and not living beyond our means. It is very clear early on that Ben Lovatt is not Kevin Khatchadourian. There is something almost supernatural about Ben, whereas Kevin was terrifyingly real. Although some of the trials that Harriet and Eva face are similar, I didn't feel there were strong parallels between the two. So much of Eva’s struggle is how one deals with a child one does not love, and what one does when one has a child that is obviously “wrong”. It becomes clear early on that as much as Ben makes the Lovatts miserable, Harriet will not forsake him and is determined to be a mother to him. She doesn't understand him, indeed she sometimes fears him, but she is committed to do right by Ben as best she can. As a reader, I never felt as close to Harriet as I did Eva, but perhaps that was intentional. Lessing writes The Fifth Child in the third-person, so we are never privy to Harriet’s inner-workings. As a result, we cannot know truly how she views Ben or what she thinks of him, but maybe this is because in the end, it is not clear what exactly Ben is; he is inscrutable in many ways. While I do think Lessing has something to say about what it means to be a parent (there is a particular turning point when Harriet decides unequivocally that she cannot turn her back on Ben, something her husband does not necessarily agree with), I think The Fifth Child is more pulling apart the idea of large family’s as hunky dory and how we cope with things when the road gets rough. We can sympathize with how difficult Ben must be as a child, and yet the Lovatts themselves are not blameless in what befalls them and how they choose to deal with it. In many ways, they are the makers of their own misery. One thing I definitely liked about this novel was the way Lessing could get my sympathies to flip from character to character, loathing them in one scene, only to find that I could understand their motivations in the next. I think it takes a strong author who works to make her characters more than just villains or heroes, for we all have a bit of both in ourselves. Surely there is more in this book than what I have written here, but again, it feels like one of those books you can only glean so much from on a first reading. I thought the text was actually really accessible, even if it was incredibly smart and clever. This is a short book (just 133 pages), more of a novella really, so it’s a great way to dip your toe in the Doris Lessing oeuvre rather than diving into some of her longer and perhaps denser works. The slant of the material was also such that I don’t think it’s redundant if you’ve already read Shriver’s novel, nor is it something I think those who are averse to Shriver’s novel would necessarily find as unsettling. I found it a riveting read, and it makes me interested in reading more Lessing in the future. Interestingly, Lessing apparently penned a sequel called Ben, in the World which follows Ben after he reaches adulthood. I have to say, I’m actually not interested in picking up with him, as I think it is somehow more appealing to leave him enigmatic and unexplained. All in all, if you’ve been thinking of trying Doris Lessing, this is a great place to start. I certainly look forward to re-reading this book, as well as trying some of her lengthier fiction. Rating: 4 out of 5

19 Comments

  1. Ah, I HAVE actually been wondering where to start with Lessing. This looks like a good spring board. My son (3) , who is sitting on my lap, is a bit freaked out by the cover, though…

  2. I read this book last year, and it was my first Lessing as well. I loved it.

    Like you, when I first picked it up, I thought it would be similar to Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, but it turned out to be quite different, although I did find myself asking the same questions about nature vs nurture etc.

    Looking forward to seeing your thoughts on some of her lengthier fiction as well – I don’t know where to start, and The Golden Notebook just seems way too intimidating.

  3. 04/24/2011

    I had not ever heard of this book, but you are right, it does sound like it’s very different than Kevin. I like that Lessing makes her characters so multi-dimensional and enables the reader to both loathe them, and feel for them in the space of the story. I am also interested in hashing out just why these people felt like it was so necessary to have a large family that they couldn’t take care of or afford, and think that this book sounds really interesting for a host of reasons. As usual, after reading one of your reviews, the wish list swells by one, but it’s all good because I know that I will probably adore this book. Thanks for sharing this review with us. It was extremely absorbing and thoughtful.

  4. 04/25/2011

    @ Pam: I agree the cover is kind of freaky, but it wasn’t so bad I felt the need to cover it up while I read. The story is so absorbing you probably won’t find yourself looking at the cover.
     
    @ anotehrcookiecrumbles: I agree that The Golden Notebook seems to intimidating… I don’t know why! I have another Lessing, Alfred & Emily, in which she kind of rewrites her parents’ history which I find intriguing. I’ll probably tackle that next, though I don’t really know why I’m waiting to tackle her masterpiece.
     
    @ zibilee: I was really surprised at how different from Kevin this felt, since on the surface I really thought they’d be nearly identical. It really was its own story, however, which I think impressed me all the more. Lessing definitely took the story in some directions I really did not expect.
     
    @ Jackie: If all of Lessing’s books read like this one, then I have no business being afraid of her! If you do read Ben in the World, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it!
     
    @ Meghan: I can definitely see rereading this book in the future, perhaps doing a back-to-back reading with Shriver or some other books that delve into parenthood. Lately I’ve been happy with books that sort of leave things open-ended, so that may be part of why I’m not at all interested in reading more about Ben!

  5. I loved this book, but like you wasn’t that interested in the sequel. I did actually buy a second hand copy of Ben in the World a few months ago, but haven’t read it yet. I’m intimidated by other Lessing books too, but perhaps our fears are unjustified?

  6. 04/25/2011

    I read this book back in college – like you, Lessing always scared me, so I was glad to have others to help me dissect and analyze what exactly was going on. But I did like it and loved the many ways it made me think about parenthood. I also never really had any interest in the sequel, although several years on now I think I’d like to reread this!

  7. 04/25/2011

    Hey Steph, great post! This book sounds likes quite a read. I have to admit that I haven’t read Lessing in quite some time. The three books I’ve read by her were: The Good Terrorist, Memoirs of a Survivor, and Mara and Dann. All three were excellent reads. Lessing is definitely someone whose works I should probably read more often, but for some reason I never remember to. And I know what you mean about feeling intimidated by certain authors – luckily for me, I hadn’t heard of Lessing at the time when I read The Good Terrorist (my first Lessing), so I just dove right in. I guess sometimes ignorance is bliss 😉

  8. 04/25/2011

    I’ve thought I ought to read Lessing, too. Seems I’m getting less and less adventurous with new-to-me authors as I get older. Good review, Steph!

  9. I’ve had the same sort of thought about Lessing. I almost picked up one of her other books, The Golden Notebook, I think, but something kept me from trying it. This one sounds so creepy!

  10. 04/27/2011

    I have to read this book now!!! I have avoided Lessing for much the same reasons as you but I absolutely loved We Need to Talk About Kevin so I really want to read this now. Thanks for the review Steph – I’m gonna hunt this one down soon.

  11. 04/27/2011

    This was one of the creepier book I’ve ever read. Some scenes (especially during her pregnancy) are imprinted in my memory.

    I don’t remember it as a cautionary tale, really. I remember they were a really happy couple/family up until Ben and he makes their lives a mightmare because… well, because he’s Ben. I still believe that if he was a “normal” child, that they would still remain happy.

    Maybe it was a novel against living beyond your means or maybe it was a novel abut Lessing’s worst pregnancy fears. Either way, it has an impact!

  12. 04/28/2011

    @ Nadia: It’s so crazy because sometimes I get scared of authors who are considered hard that I’ve already read! I assume that the books I’ve read by them and liked have been a fluke and the next one I pick up will be too much for me… Clearly I have issues!
     
    @ Nicola: I feel like I’ve been getting more adventurous as a reader, probably as a function of book blogging. I’ve been exposed to so many books that I likely never would have heard of otherwise, so I find myself constantly searching out new authors to love.
     
    @ Kim: It was creepy, but in the best possible way! I think you should read it because I’m sure you’ll have tons of wonderfully insightful things to say about it!
     
    @ The Book Whisperer: This is really an interesting complement to Kevin, so I do hope you find a copy of it and read it. As far as Lessing goes, she knows how to write a scary book, but that doesn’t mean we should be scared of her as an author. This is a great starting point, I think.
     
    @ Alex: I definitely felt like Lessing was saying something about the family – even before Ben they may have been happy, but it was at the expense of others. Surely she did not hold them in high regard then and in many ways, Ben was a means of jolting them back to reality since he ultimately makes them lose everything they wanted. But of course, that is just my reading of it!

  13. […] The Fifth Child (Doris Lessing) — Thanks to a review by Steph of Steph & Tony Investigate! […]

  14. 05/09/2011

    God, this review is so brilliant. Here’s an author I have never been particularly interested in (probably a crime to award writers a Nobel Prize), and there you have gotten me so interested in it. I love intelligent creepiness, and this just sounds so awesome, I know I definitely want to read it.

  15. 05/09/2011

    @ Nishita: I think you’d like this book a lot! It is the epitome of intelligent creepiness, so if you’re ok with a book that will make you think deeply about what it means to raise children and be a parent, I highly recommended it!

  16. 05/21/2011

    I read The Fifth Child well over 10 years ago really enjoyed it, though it certainly freaked me out about having kids!

    I’m reading a book right now, though, that I just don’t think I’m smart enough for. I read a review of it in the NYT (after I’d started it) and I just don’t see the things the reviewer saw. The only reason I’m persisting in reading this book is because it’s the first book for a new book club I’ve joined. It’s not doing much for my reading confidence, though!

  17. 05/24/2011

    @ trish: Good thing you read it a decade ago rather than so soon to your pregnancy… It definitely made me certain that I don’t want kids fora good long while! 🙂
    And yes, bookclub reads always make me reconsider my intelligence… It’s hard when you feel like you’re reading a book for someone else rather than for yourself.

  18. Gabe
    11/05/2011

    I was recommended this book several years ago by a friend. It tore me up but for good reason. This is the story of my family , only in our case he is the sixth child! My parents met on a blind date in the 50’s and within 24 hours had decided on a family of six. They set immediatly to work and within eight years, mission accomplished. Our brother still lives in the house and is both IHC and Bi-polar. He shares a co-dependant, symbiotic relationship with our mother. he has driven a wedge between her and Dad (divide and conquer). We? Guilty, all of us blessed with good health, healthy children (18 in all), there is no solution as long as she remains commited to her instinct, there is no solution. It felt as if the author had been a fly on the wall in our home for many years such is her intuition and handling of each family member. like many of you I don’t want to read any more about Ben, I live with the follow-up every day in all it’s drama and perhaps narcissism. We have recently been discussing a work of non-fiction in which each of us write our story, the agony is too much so we have started each with a paragraph, the para graph below is mine;

    She raised us.
    She did a good job, we are manually deft, practical, excellent cooks and passionate parents. We repair the broken and invent the yet to be done, we open dialogue with unknowns and grow delicious food in our gardens. We are charming, engaging, humorous, kind and unecessarally generous. We are the sum of her output and we are all here to remind her of her failing. Him.
    We cannot be her babies or her friends, there are five of us that daily demonstrate this. Number six has us entranced.
    He was sent to keep us in check, to ensure that we could never take for granted our health, our fortune and our Mother. Paralysis.
    She is still doing a good job.

  19. Rahyna Fazal
    06/18/2012

    Both The Fifth Child and Ben,in the World are great books.If you have read The Fifth Child then you must read the second part where you read about Ben’s tragic life as a young man and how cruel we humans are when it comes to judging people by their appearance and thereby making life for ‘ugly’people more difficult than it already is.
    Both books are very sad because they can be so true,if you look at the mother and father,they are typical philistines and want a large perfect family and suddenly a mistake is born nd their world and ideals all crumble,in this story you can see a lot of truths that we see in our world today,normally when something happens within the family,the father figure is the first one to didtance himself away from the family and the mother is left to bare the grudges from society.
    But I loved both books because Doris wrote about the wants of mankind and when we don’t get what we want,we run away from our responsibilities.Poor Ben had nowhere to run.

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