In the title novel, two friends fall in love with each other's teenage sons, and these passions last for years, until the women end them, vowing a respectable old age. In Victoria and the Staveneys, a young woman gives birth to a child of mixed race and struggles with feelings of estrangement as her daughter gets drawn into a world of white privilege. The Reason for It traces the birth, faltering, and decline of an ancient culture, with enlightening modern resonances. A Love Child features a World War II soldier who believes he has fathered a love child during a fleeting wartime romance and cannot be convinced otherwise.
The subtitle of this collection of stories—“Four Short Novels”—announces their ambition: each unfolds over decades, tracking with dispassionate precision how youthful notions come to define, and even defeat, a life. Two women seal their friendship by seducing each other’s teen-age son; an aged counselor recounts the decay of a mysterious ancient civilization ruled by a handsome but foolish despot; an impoverished black girl bears the child of a middle-class white boy, and is welcomed by his self-consciously liberal family. Lessing’s scathing intelligence ranges widely, but her tales tend to wobble under the weight of her ideas. She is at her best in the final story, which extends from England to the outposts of empire in South Africa and India during the Second World War. A British soldier has a brief affair with an officer’s wife, and in later years becomes obsessed with the idea that he might have fathered a son, a possibility that appears to him as the key to the life he should have led.