The Fifth Child

Right Author, Wrong Book

Doris Lessing died last year. It got me thinking again about another one of my ongoing small problems as a reader, which I can explain very nicely with two writers as examples. The problem is: You love a writer, but for the wrong book. Another way to put it: The weird situation where you love a writer, but exclusively for the "lesser" works. When a writer gets famous, or develops a reputation for being particularly good at some thing or other, you’re supposed to gush over That Thing. Let me take as examples Doris Lessing (famous for her novel The Golden Notebook, embraced by feminists around the world; her political novel The Good Terrorist, and her sci-fi/fantasy novels) and Shirley Jackson, about whom I’ve written elsewhere for the New Haven Review. Shirley Jackson is known today mostly for her creepy fiction, novels such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hangsaman, among many others.

Here is my problem: I have spent most of my life really admiring both of these writers, and regarding them with awe and wonder, and counting myself, really, truly, as an ardent fan, without having read any of these landmark titles.

Instead, I base my adoration of these writers on books that I think most critics would view as fluffy side projects. In the case of Doris Lessing, my love is based entirely -- entirely -- on a really skinny, scary-as-hell novel called The Fifth Child, which came out in 1988. (It’s actually a very Shirley Jacksonesque work, about a happy family that has four children, and then a fifth baby arrives, and Everything Changes and Not For the Better.) In the case of Shirley Jackson, my love is based on Life Among the Savages, which is just a collection of fictionalized essays about domestic life. (The connections here are fun to think about, aren’t they?)

And I have no plans to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or Hangsaman, or whatever else.

Now, in the case of Doris Lessing, I’ve long felt bad that this book, The Fifth Child, was the one that made such a big impression on me. I suppose it was bound to; I was never someone who liked small children, and always found them scary. The idea of ever being a mother was completely abhorrent to me: Never! Never! (Never mind that I am, in fact, a mother now.) It was a short novel (my favorite kind) that was taut and made me feel that my sense about children was not unfounded. And it was, you know, well-written, had a literary pedigree, was published by a fancy house, etc. etc. I think I read that book once a year for ages. I remember that it was one of the books I took with me when I went away to college. I wasn’t at all ashamed of my love for The Fifth Child, but I definitely felt guilty that none of Lessing’s other books held any interest for me. I thought it didn’t speak well of me that The Fifth Child was the Lessing book I knew and loved so well, and more to the point, I always felt like I was the only person who felt this way, who’d had this experience. (I acknowledge this, though: Perhaps I just wasn’t the right age for most of her books. There are definitely some writers where if you don’t read them at just the right phase of your life, there’s no point. My mother gave me copies of numerous Lessing books when I was a teenager, which I glanced at and then set aside, because I thought, “oh, who cares.” At the same time, though, I’ve never gotten rid of them. Maybe the time is now, and in 2014 I should put them on my list. I’ve actually begun to read Anna Karenina, recently, for the first time; this, if nothing else, proves that anything is possible, because I’ve been avoiding reading that for decades, now, in spite of the fact that I own two copies of it.)

I thought that The Fifth Child as the only Lessing book I knew and loved so well showed me to be a weak reader, somehow. More to the point, I always felt like I was the only person who felt this way, who’d had this experience. And then a couple days ago I finally got around to reading the issue of the New York Times Magazine that they do every December, the Lives They Lived issue, where writers and photographers do little pieces about the noteworthy and interesting people who died during the year. Of all people, of all books, Steve Almond wrote about Doris Lessing, and god bless him for making me see so clearly that I am not alone. His essay, which is a pleasure to read by the way, begins with this:

“My interest in Doris Lessing -- Nobel Prize winner and one of the most celebrated writers on earth -- derives from a single book, the 1988 novel The Fifth Child, which has haunted me for more than 20 years.”

I always knew I liked that Steve Almond. I don’t care about his fiction at all, by the way, but boy do I love that book Candy Freak.