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The Summer Before the Dark (1973)

by Doris Lessing

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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940915,984 (3.57)37
With her children grown and her husband away in America for several months, Kate Brown finds herself alone for the first time in twenty years.
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» See also 37 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)

I did not get on well with the only other Doris Lessing book I have read, The Grass is Singing, but I thought this was excellent - a short novel about a woman in her mid-40s who suddenly gets an opportunity to break away from her family and friends, and grabs it with both hands. I found the geographical and character descriptions excellent, and Kate's journey to freedom rather exhilarating. Recommended. ( )
  nwhyte | Nov 29, 2015 |

GENERAL SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never read The Summer Before the Dark, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here. Since it was published in 1973, and because Lessing is a NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR, I’m writing with the assumption that I’m the one late to the party (which is usually the case) and many of you lovers of literary fiction have probably either read it already or are super familiar with the plot. So, if not, stop. Now. You’ve been warned.

“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 had offered, without knowing she was doing it, which had been ignored by herself and by everyone else, was what was real in her.” (page 140)
The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I couldn’t help but call to mind Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) (which I’m coincidentally currently rereading) as I read Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark. Though Lessing’s piece takes place in the 1960s, she’s covering familiar territory: Lessing’s heroine Kate Brown has reached a point in her life where she has the chance to figure out who she is, outside of her roles of dutiful wife and nurturing mother. What’s powerful about Lessing’s work is how Kate’s feelings of superfluousness drive the narrative. Kate has done what she’s supposed to: she supported her husband by raising their children, running their home and entertaining their guests. Now her children are grown and her husband is abroad; no one needs her anymore. There is nothing she is supposed to be doing. At a time where she has the unique opportunity to reassert herself and explore her own passions and interests beyond the expectations of others, it becomes clear she doesn’t remember how. As a result, even as she steps away from the confines of the home, she continues to let her life be dictated by the decisions of others. (e.g. a friend of her husband suggests she takes a job as a translator and she does; a handsome stranger she meets in a hotel lobby suggests she accompany him to Spain and she does). Kate may *think* she’s making decisions for herself, but she’s still largely being guided by the whims and needs of those she meets (i.e.men). Then, midway through the novel, finding herself in the middle of the European equivalent of Hicksville in Spain, she gets sick. Like, debilitatingly, life-threateningly sick. She flees back to London, and spends weeks upon weeks in bed in a crazy-expensive hotel, completely neglecting her appearance and overall cleanliness and health…Kate seems to have completely LOST HER SHIT. (n.b. What I found equally as disturbing as Kate’s transformation was the lack of contact from her family and their general lack of concern for her well-being. They’re all off, doing their own thing, not at all curious as to how she is or what’s she’s been up to. It just struck me as really sad.) By the time she gets out of bed, Kate is emaciated and unkempt, and decides to greet the world as such. Her clothes are falling off of her. Her gray hair has grown in and her red-dye job has faded, and the gray has reclaimed the majority of her hairline. She no longer projects “Mrs. Michael Brown.” She is someone else entirely. She finds herself ignored. Invisible. And she’s fascinated by this experience, by being able to face society as someone other than “herself.” This sensation is the thing that seems to trigger a bit of clarity and productive self-reflection…but then she relapses (growth-wise). Kate, on a whim, decides to rent a room in a flat belonging (??) to 20-something Maureen, who in time comes to stand in for Kate’s daughter Eileen. Kate quickly resumes the maternal role of nurturer during Maureen’s existential crisis of sorts (i.e. SO MANY MEN LOVE ME! WHICH ONE DO I MARRY??? And I’m kind of like, meh, about most of them). And in the interim, Kate comes to the following conclusion:

“The mood she was in when she walked in at her front door again would be irrelevant: now that was the point, it was the truth. We spend our lives assessing, balancing, weighing what we think, we feel…it’s all nonsense. Long after an experience which has been experienced as this or that kind of thought, emotion, and judged at the time accordingly–well, it is seen quite differently. That’s what was happening, you think; and what you thought or felt about it at the time seems laughable, jejune.

How was her summer out of the family going to seem to her in a year or so’s time? She could be quite certain that it would not seem anything like it did now. So, why bother to assess and weigh, saying, This is what I am thinking, and therefore I should do this or that, this or that is happening…at which point in Kate’s deliberations (for she was, of course, doing what she was deciding was pointless) Maureen came in, and said, “Kate, you know what it is? It doesn’t matter, that’s what it is. I can’t feel that it matters. Whatever I decide to do.” She went quickly out again.” (page 256)

Uplifting, right?

Moral of the story: it’s healthy to be a bit selfish. It’s dangerous to completely surrender our entire selves to one thing, whether it be to our job, to our children or to our relationships…because if that outer thing, that image that we’ve allowed to define us, is suddenly removed, what remains?

Rubric rating: 8.5 Depressing, but thought-provoking. (Plus .5 was awarded for the recurring seal dreams. Because SEALS.) ( )
  jaclyn_michelle | Apr 15, 2014 |
Lessing here writes about transitions, about identity, about women and how they are together, with men and how they are seen. I would be surprised if any woman, certainly over the age of 35 or so, does not read this with some recognition. Kate, married, mother, educated and enlightened, ends up on a spiritual and physical journey at what feels like a turning point. She meets younger men and women; sloughs off her skin and puts it on again, and essentially goes through the quest which will take her to a different phase of life - from dependency to self possession, from home to home.
1 vote otterley | Aug 25, 2013 |
Doris Lessing is a writing machine and queen of all genres. The list of other works contained in my Vintage paperback spans two pages and includes not only novels, but short stories, drama, poetry and non-fiction. As this is my first experience with her writing, I can’t comment on much, but this book is definitely a force. It has palpable heft and a weightiness that I haven’t often experienced with women writers. At its core it is a feminist piece with more than a few easily recognizable themes and characters fashioned specifically to illustrate certain ideas, situations and social norms. Don’t let that put you off though, the writing is startling and, at least to me, innovative. I will definitely be reading more of her work.

Here are some of my notes -
I think Lessing might have invented the Cougar.

So many layers to Kate’s personality and past, skillfully revealed.

Terrific insight into the interior of a marriage and (extra-marital) affairs.
p. 98 - Now she admits the kids were right to call themselves monsters. She had to come to it by shedding her mother persona.
What does the seal dream represent? Could be so many things. Her lost/inner self. Her kids. Her need to mother things.

Jeffrey = trying

p. 17x - The theater scene is really interesting. The culmination of her madness? Her sanity? Her breakthrough? Her illness burns away her old, complacent self. The one that existed for others. Judgmental Kate.

And where are her things? Earlier she gave away the dresses she bought for her job, now everything seems to be gone. Physical baggage = mental baggage. She rids herself of Jeffrey, too. Relief.

Yet another stand-in for her children to mother. Maureen.

p. 204 Attention makes her feel like herself again. Not the care of the sick attention, but sexual attention. Attraction. She’s aware of her visibility v. invisibility and though she acknowledges it and is appalled by it, she can’t help courting it. She can’t escape the box of physicality she associates with her true self.

p. 102 - “Nothing in the homage her grandfather paid womanhood, or in the way her mother had treated her, had prepared her for what she was going to have to learn, and soon.” - basically a life of self-effacement and sacrifice to her children, husband and home. Lessing calls it self-abnegation.

p. 202 - (responding to Maureen’s asking if she’ll watch the flat for a few days while she goes off) “No.” With an effort, Kate stopped herself from saying, “But if you want me to, of course I will.” She said, “You see, it’s not often that I get the chance to be absolutely free, and not have to do things, look after things. I don’t know when I shall have it again.”
“How long?”
“Since you had it, since you were free?”
“This is the first time in my whole life that I’ve had it.”

After she makes peace with herself, she goes back to her family, but I think something is permanently free inside Kate. Her mind, her spirit, her true identity. Those things will soar forever. ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | May 29, 2013 |
As with much of Lessing's work (even The Golden Notebook), the metaphors here are quite heavy handed and rather obvious; the reader can't escape from the idea that this story contains a political message, and that the characters Stand For Something outside of just themselves. Readers preferring more escape in their story may want to pass this one up.

Despite this impediment, I was pleasantly surprised at the book. Kate, the protagonist, has internal conflicts and struggles that are believable; you can choose to identify with them and become involved in their eventual outcome. Although the other characters we're told enough of to care about are clear types (the liberated young woman, the neighbor couple who've reached an uneasy peace with polyandry, the troubled son, the cheating spouse), they are believable people for all that.

This is essentially the story of Kate Brown, who spends a summer doing work in various parts of Europe, called at the last minute to be a translator for a friend of her husband's. When the job is done, she proceeds on a love affair, and then comes back to England and wanders around lost for a bit, refusing to return home, wondering what is left of her life now her children are grown, resenting what she's given up of herself to her family. Lessing is strident about the costs of filling women's roles; Kate is just somewhat beaten. It's potentially interesting, and a reasonable example of point-making by the prior generation of feminists; and a quick read at only 247 pages. ( )
  freddlerabbit | Feb 28, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Doris Lessingprimary authorall editionscalculated
Rivers, RuthCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vink, NettieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A woman stood on her back step, arms folded, waiting.
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With her children grown and her husband away in America for several months, Kate Brown finds herself alone for the first time in twenty years.

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Kate Brown to kobieta po czterdziestce, żona i matka czworga dorosłych już dzieci, dla których gotowa była do największych poświęceń. Niespodziewanie dla siebie samej podejmuje pracę jako tłumaczka konferencyjna. Ma szansę sprawdzić swoje zdolności organizacyjne na polu zawodowym, podróżuje po świecie, odnajduje się w całkowicie odmiennej rzeczywistości. Czy w takim razie Kate może mówić o pełnej satysfakcji?
Książka napisana prostym, pełnokrwistym językiem – idealnym, gdy się chce opowiedzieć o samotności, upływającym czasie i ludzkim targowisku próżności.
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