Rereading influential novels at an older age can change their meaning
The Summer Before the Dark by Doris Lessing (1973) was a book I misunderstood as about the onset of older age and menopause. The book as I read it now is about inventing and embracing one’s identity.
The novel’s protagonist is a 40-something woman whose children are leaving the nest, and whose husband has accepted a work project abroad. She finds herself alone for a summer, the first time without the roles of wife and mother in more than twenty years.
I particularly remembered the section where she has been sick, and her dyed hair had turned gray. She passes unseen and unrecognized by old friends on the street, emphasizing the invisibility of older women.
She also befriends a young woman in her 20s who’s trying to figure out how to live her life. They reflect on the conundrums of each stage.
Doris Lessing did not like the feminist label.
She went through several stages of writing and wrote about life from a woman’s perspective — hence feminism. She also wrote science fiction (which I have not read) which was dismissed by serious readers of literary fiction as ‘genre fiction.’ We’ve learned from Ursula Le Fuin and other science fiction writers that world-building can be a powerful way of engaging new ideas.
Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. The Golden Notebook is regarded as her masterpiece. She is perhaps read less now, which is a minor tragedy.
But I want to talk about my younger self’s perception of menopause and aging women from The Summer Before the Dark.
I believed then, and projected onto this book, that menopause was The End of active life as a woman. The title of the novel implied that for me, instead of reading the title in several meanings, as I do now.
The novel addresses identity when a woman loses the roles that traditionally were handed her and she assumed them. Those roles remind me of contemporaries, as well as the generation before when some women hid behind those roles.
The idea we could invent ourselves was liberating.
And maybe fearful, too. My recent journey to visit old friends reinforced this idea of self-invention.
I hope that over time, I’ve replaced judgment with curiosity.
One remained a person who never left her childhood home. Another gathered ideas from across the planet on her various trips. One friend could be described as a minimalist in how she lives; another as a maximalist.
Are we inevitably who we are? Or do we choose who we shall be? I thought about these questions while traveling the miles, thinking about how I might change up my wardrobe, and restructure my daily life.
I thought about how we can limit our potential because “that isn’t who we are.” Others have lept far beyond their upbringing with clear goals and sacrifices, and maybe a little luck.
I am not discontent. Just jazzed about how 50 years go by and we who started in the same place now travel very different paths. I want to be open to decisions about identity, whether at 20 or 45, or 70.
I don’t know how young people look at older ages now. Perhaps it’s no different than a couple of generations ago when we were immersed in the sturm and drang of youth.
I view older age as the liberating review of expectations.
The physical discomforts are real, but we work around them with accommodation.
Maybe all of life is the summer before the dark.