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The Sweetest Dream: A Novel
By Doris Lessing
496 pgs. $26.95
ISBN: 0-0662-1334-7

Changing the world

By Steven Martinovich
web posted June 3, 2002

The Sweetest Dream: A NovelThe most insightful critics of social and political movements may be those who were once in their vanguard. Novelist Doris Lessing would certainly qualify as an expert in counterculture movements. A communist in her youth who abandoned three children when she moved to Africa, Lessing has long been considered one of the preeminent voices of her peers.

Among Lessing's most recent projects was a three-part autobiography. As her author's notes indicate, The Sweetest Dream: A Novel will take the place of that third installment, one that will not be written in order to avoid hurting those still alive to be hurt. The Sweetest Dream instead chronicles a family and its close friends through the turbulent 1960s until the late 1980s and is a devastating attack on the radicals that Lessing spent much of her life with.

For much of the novel the central character is Frances Lennox, ex-wife of radical communist "Comrade Johnny" and caretaker of their two sons and a group of teenagers more comfortable in the large Lennox mansion then their hopelessly square parents who, in the timeless rhetoric of teens, don't understand them. Though Comrade Johnny flits around the world attending conferences and meetings while preaching revolution, he occasionally shows up to dump more of his family on his ex-wife.

One of the teens, a severely disturbed young girl named Sylvia, takes over the second half of the novel. Sylvia, who eventually becomes a doctor, travels to the African nation of Zimlia - a thinly disguised Zimbabwe - in order to work at a Catholic mission. Where before she suffered from anorexia nervosa and an assortment of emotional issues, an adult Sylvia works hard to put together the basic rudiments of a hospital, deal with the crushing poverty of rural life, incompetent and corrupt government officials and the onslaught of the AIDS virus.

Lessing masterfully uses characters like Francis and Sylvia to illustrate that change often usually comes from the small contributions of ordinary people, not the world spanning aid organizations which knowingly or otherwise merely feed the problems gripping nations like Zimlia. Andrew Lennox, son of Francis and Comrade Johnny, is a successful lawyer running a major aid organization and yet his primary achievement was comparing the cities of the world for their capability to host conferences. Where Sylvia dealt with the people aid rarely reaches, Andrew enjoys fine meals just miles away from overwhelming poverty.

Lessing's satire and commentary stretches far beyond excoriating communists, aid organizations and corrupt governments. It also reaches to attack the yellow press, feminism and spiritualism, all complicit in propping up a radical left that Lessing states has all but forgotten what it originally set out to do: change the world for the better.

The Sweetest Dream is not a conservative novel though there is much to recommend it to conservatives. Instead, it is a powerful attack on those who manned the barricades and threw stones at police, despised their nations and preached revolution, but who when it came time to roll up their sleeves and pitch in, did nothing. It is a celebration of Francis and Sylvia and the countless unknown names that in their small ways truly do make this world a little more livable. Doubtless Lessing's former fellow travelers are disappointed in The Sweetest Dream, perhaps the finest recommendation one can make for it.

Buy Doris Lessing's The Sweetest Dream: A Novel at Amazon.com for only $18.87 (30% off)

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