Book Review: A Man and Two Women by Doris Lessing

A Man and Two Women
by Doris Lessing
MacGibbon & Kee (London, 1963)
304 pp

I expected to read a novel titled “A Man and Two Women.” I found the title to be provocative and indicative of a great story that was ripe for intrigue. The book turned out to be a collection of short stories, unlinked; separate stories did not link to create a Mother of all stories. I later discovered that the actual title was changed over the years to include a subtitle “And Other Stories.” The reason why I am getting stuck in the weeds—why an author chooses a particular title, or one title over another—is because the titles of these stories are so poorly named. “Each Other,” “Dialogue,” and “Notes for a Case Study” are droll and more lifeless than the stories themselves. The lead short story, “A Man and Two Women,” begins around page 96. This story is really about two marriages, four desperate people who do not engage in a sexual or an emotional ménage a trois. In  terms of linkage, desperation is the pervasive theme for all of the stories. Every character presents in the beginning as being relatively content, but beneath the surface boils an angry cauldron of discontent, simmering despair, and in some instances, writhing lunacy. In every story, there is always an obvious foreshadowing that occurs by the third paragraph. Then the gloom and doom mounts like waves in a coming storm, until in the end, the Tsunami drowns everyone, leaving only a thumbprint on the battered beach. The thumbprint is the author’s mark—Doris Lessing’s inimitable brand in the telling of stories where nothing is ever what it appears to be, and her characters are decidedly British, rarely acknowledging what ails them until they perish like pawns in a Hal Pinter game of chess. There is a bit of a nasty edge to how she paints women as shallow and vain creatures looking to score a come up in life by capturing the right man. Men fare no better—they are always on the make, unapologetically scoring conquests solely to engrave notches on their bedposts. Doris Lessing is a brilliant writer who casts a pall on light, joy, happiness—the up side of human life. Her storytelling technique, (crafting of excellent sentences, narrative description, and keen ear for dialogue) is superb. If only she saw a bit of human goodness, every now and then, instead of being mired in the dark swamp of hypocrisy. 


Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and ten books.

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