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By Doris Lessing
New York: Random House, First Vintage International edition, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-307-39062-2 273 pages

Bob Corbett
November 2015

Kate Brown is a woman who is thinking things through to their core, which makes this a quite meditative novel. It seems she was not always a meditative woman. She is 45, in a fairly happy marriage with four grown children, living a middle to upper middle class life in the suburbs of London.

Kate is unusual in two particular respects; first of all she is fluent in English, French, Italian and Portuguese. She learned her languages from her grandfather. Yet, she’s not worked since her marriage, and hasn’t used those languages for economic purposes, she had no need. Her husband, Michael is a well-known physician and scholar with a bit of international recognition and makes a quite adequate salary for the family. Kate sort of fell into the role of stay-at-home mother out of cultural habit among the folks they know.

As summer approaches a fairly rare moment comes along. Her husband will be going to the U.S. for several months to teach and lecture. Their only daughter will be accompanying him so that she can study there, and he’s is hoping Kate will join them, but she’s decided she won’t go on this trip, despite the long period they will be away, she’s going to stay home.

However, the other three children each have plans to go way to different exotic places for the summer as well, and she would be alone. They decide to rent out the house and Kate will just rent a room somewhere in the London area. It doesn’t seem too unusual to Kate.

Some friends of theirs are visiting and they happen to know people in a huge food company who have a great last-minute need for a translator to work for them translating from Portuguese to English, French and Italian as the need occurs. Kate decides this might be interesting.

The job turns out not to be merely interesting, but economically very remunerative and fascinating, even fun. She’s not often been in the work world, but this world of making significant money on her own, which she’d never done, and becoming liked and known in a rather impressive group of people does startling things for her self-esteem and gives her a goodly amount of money as well.

The food company does expect her to dress the part, and she becomes aware of an entirely new image she exudes. In addition her natural character is to be kind and helpful to people. She does this for the various groups and individuals she’s translating to, and the people a very appreciating. The management sees this and realizes she is even more valuable at the international meetings and training forums as a hostess to the clientele than as a translator. Not only is her job changed, but her salary is raised considerably and she is now a very well paid woman, highly treasured by her bosses, appreciated and liked by her customers and recognized by all at these various meetings as an important cog in the entire experience. This is all so new to Kate. She hardly knows what to make of it; however, she is doing something she hasn’t done in many many years, thinking about herself. Who really is Kate Brown? The first thing she sees immediately is that, again perhaps for the first time, there are really two Kate Browns. The Kate she’d been for all her life up to now, and all of a sudden this new Kate Brown, highly valued and desired by her employer, very much enjoyed, respected and even awed by her clientele. Kate’s brain is simply racing along in overdrive trying to understand it all.

After a couple of months in this work there is transportation strike in London and an important and large conference has to me moved. It is moved to Istanbul and the company begs Kate to come in her role as hostess, and pays her a lavish salary with clothing allowance and other perks. This simply enhances the challenge to her own self confidence and sense of self. Who, really, is she? Is she really this capable? Is she as valuable to this company as they seem to think? Who ultimately is Kate Brown? She’s becoming more and more reflective and beginning to see the long-time housewife, Kate Brown, as a rather less interesting person than the new celebrity Kate Brown.

Her mind is in a whirl, and she is comparing her life since marriage, her role as wife and mother and the various expectations and life-form she’s been living against the new celebrity Kate Brown. One nagging concern she has had for years is her next door neighbor Mary. Mary was the central person Kate has ever known who wasn’t really living life as “it was supposed to be.” Mary was married, had children, but also had a rather constant flow of lovers and just seemed to live life as she pleased. In general Kate liked Mary. Most everyone did and everyone seemed to know about her constant affairs and just blew them off as: “well, that’s Mary.” This was even true of her husband, her children, Kate’s husband and even Kate’s children, all friends of Mary and Mary’s family. Kate has never known what in the world to make of Mary, her seemingly bizarre life-style and brazen infidelities.

Kate’s mind is just overwhelmed by all these changes in her life. Now, wealthy, well-dressed, looking so lovely all the time, admired and needed by her clients, treasured by her bosses, Kate is just flabbergasted at it all. Who is she? Who does she really want to be? Who is or was that Kate she’d been all these years, where is her world going, when will this Cinderella story end? Who is Kate Brown?

At conference in Istanbul Kate is approached by an interesting but strange young man, a fellow not connected to the ritzy meetings that Kate is working for, and he is attracted to her just by seeing her at the hotel. He finds a way to make contact with her and he suggests they visit a tourist site together, and he is then trying to convince her to take off with him as soon as this conference ends and to go Spain and help him fulfil a great dream of his to again travel in Spain and to just live a very free and exciting life. Kate is quite flattered, and given all that is going on inside her, also knowing that her husband Michael has had a number of little flings on the side, she decides this is important to her, and perhaps will even help with the understanding of who really is Kate Brown?

The Spanish trip is an utter disaster. The young man is much less interesting or sexy that he seemed, and he is insistent on travelling at the economic level he can afford which is much more life as a back packing-college kid. Kate has become used to a much higher standard of living than this. Then, at no particular fault of the young man, he becomes very ill, yet he does insist with some vigor that they continue to travel into areas of Spain not normally visited by tourists. He seems to be on some sort of Quixote-like dream of the perfect life in some tiny rural inland Spanish town.

His illness however, is quite serious and he is in danger of death. Kate becomes the mother figure again, in many ways, takes changes and effectively saves his life. However, she’s realized the craziness of this whole adventure and once she gets him to where he can get decent medical care, she finally just leaves, having learned many many things about herself.

But her journey of self-discovery and self-analysis isn’t over. She has been challenged to the core of her being and she has to have more time to figure out who she is and what her life is all about before she can return home to her family. She heads to London and to a rougher area of London than she’s used to and finds a room in a sort of hippie-like place run by a young woman, Maureen who is on some sort of self-discovery trip of her own. She is from a moneyed family and is living in this tiny and rather unpleasant apartment as a life experiment for herself and she comes to sort of see Kate as a mother figure, which is the last thing in the world that Kate wants at this time when she, herself, is desperately trying to figure out: who am I?

The great frustration and enlightenment to Kate is that for Maureen, Kate is seen as the mother she sort of wished she’d had, and she wants Kate to play that role, but play the role as Maureen would script it. Kate is simply not up to that for two main reasons: first, a mothering role is the last thing Kate is thinking about at the moment, and secondly, were she to play the role, it wouldn’t be the mother that Maureen would have wanted. Kate just doesn’t like the nature of Maureen’s seeming utopia.

The essence of the novel is not actually in the events I’ve described above. It is in the inner challenges and inner dialogue Kate is having with herself every second. The novel is about Kate’s coming, at age 45; to some sort of self-discovery and courage to be the self she believes she really is. She’s come to see that she is neither that mother she always thought she should be, nor is she, like the young Maureen, a sort of hippie outsider, nor a Don Quixote like the young man she’d been with. She is Kate. Herself. She has skills and abilities she didn’t really realize. The role of being mother and wife aren’t really what she had assumed there were.

Kate is ready and strong enough to tackle the on-going task of coming to be the Kate whom, somehow and someway, she really is. Kate is ready to go home.

This is a very powerful introspective novel. It’s harsh at times, a bit fanciful now and again, yet overall it is a powerful and challenging novel. I can’t help but think that most of us in our middle and later years might not well profit from an experience of challenge like the one that author Doris Lessing has laid out for Kate Brown.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett