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I expected to like it.
on December 3, 2001
MARTHA QUEST covers part of the same time period as UNDER MY SKIN, volume one of Lessing's autobiography, girlhood through marriage. I loved the autobiography, so I expected to love the fictional version.
I was already disappointed in Part 1, in which Martha is a teenage girl living on her parents' farm in Southern Africa. I can understand why generations of girls and young women in the grip of resenting the family and place into which they did not choose to be born have loved this book. I, however, am old enough to have put such feelings behind me, but not so old that I don't cringe at being reminded of them. The landscape that was so lovingly described in UNDER MY SKIN here is seen through the eyes of someone who hates it, and wants to be gone. The descriptions do not transcend the dissatisfaction of the character, and I didn't enjoy reading them. I found the endless conflict between Martha and her mother tiresome. I was impatient reading about months of quarrels about the childish clothes her mother forced her to wear, with both parties complaining to Martha's father, trying to get him to take sides. This feud was finally resolved when Martha took money she had been given for Christmas and bought fabric to make her own clothes. I couldn't help comparing this with the much briefer but immeasurably more enjoyable passage in UNDER MY SKIN in which she strides out into the bush with a rifle, shoots some birds, sells them to the butcher in town, and uses the money to buy the fabric. Problem solved, without endless whining.
In Book 2, Martha takes a job and moves into town. I enjoyed the account of her first week of work as secretary at a law firm. I liked her uncertainty about what she was supposed to do, how surprised and disconcerted she was when she realized she had no skills, and the descriptions of office gossip and politics. Pretty soon, though, her social life takes over, and she becomes a girl about town. I have two problems with this. One, she is a very unlikeable character. Vain, passive, mirror-mad, and eerily detached. I remember having the same reaction to THE GRASS IS SINGING, Lessing's first published novel. I couldn't stand any of the 3 characters in it, and didn't enjoy reading it at all. The difference is, I was utterly riveted and couldn't put it down. Which brings me to my second problem. The narrative is painfully analytical. Much of the time I don't care about the situation, I don't want to know what is going to happen, and so I am not willing to put up with such painstaking prose. (Example: "She was just about to telephone Jasmine, when the phone rang for her; but not at all as simply as that statement sounds. First, the instrument on Mrs. Buss's desk gave a shrill and prolonged peal, so that Martha, who had been about to pick it up..." Do you really want to know how that sentence ends?) There are passages like this in later Lessing novels, but the prose is more gracefully contructed, and the situation warrants the analysis. Here, much of the book is written this way.
If you're wondering whether you would like this book, balance this review with the others before deciding. Many people have loved this book. If you've disliked other Lessing books, you won't like this one. I usually at least like, if not love, Lessing's work, and I don't like this one at all.