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‘Free Woman’ review: Lara Feigel studies the life of Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing and the meanings of freedom

Lara Feigel, author of

Lara Feigel, author of "Free Woman." Photo Credit: Jonathan Ring

FREE WOMAN: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing, by Lara Feigel. Bloomsbury, 323 pp., $28.

In “Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing,” Lara Feigel turns to the English novelist Doris Lessing after a season of weddings leave her disappointed in her generation and a miscarriage serves as a reminder that she herself is changing. Reading Lessing’s 1962 novel, “The Golden Notebook — in which women struggle with the disappointments of love, radical politics, motherhood and writing — she finds a writer who is interested the ways in which life traps women. Armed with Lessing’s work, Feigel decides to investigate freedom — what it is, how to get it and why she never seems to have it.

Lessing was born Doris Tayler in 1919 in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran), and spent her childhood and early adulthood in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). By the time of her death in 2013, she had left two marriages, given birth to three children (two of them somewhat infamously left behind with their father in Southern Rhodesia), entered and left the Communist Party, written more than 20 novels and won the Nobel Prize. Her work, as Feigel illustrates, was preoccupied by questions about women, sex and politics.

Given that Lessing’s life includes these radical exercises of freedom, and her writing explores it directly, she seems an ideal subject for Feigel. In some ways, she is, but “Free Woman” suffers from one immediately apparent problem: As Feigel writes, “My identification with [Lessing] had a naiveté of a kind I would discourage in my students.”

The contrast between the two women is stark: Lessing’s life was simply more exciting than most people’s; Feigel’s biggest struggle is feeling unhappy and not knowing why. The mundanity of Feigel’s problems compared with Lessing’s is, however, the reason for the book: perhaps, she thinks, women in the past lived more courageously than their daughters.

Much of “Free Woman” is beautiful — in particular, Feigel’s descriptions of the pleasures of swimming in the ocean, and a focus on sensuality that comes as much from glorying in the body as from sexual opportunity. If you have wanted to read Lessing but balked at “The Golden Notebook,” Feigel offers several other entry points to her work. But this book ultimately focuses on Lessing and Feigel as personalities, who, thanks to the identification that drives Feigel’s project, don’t always seem distinct from one another. This can be both tedious and claustrophobic.

It’s also a little disappointing. Among the pleasures of one of Feigel’s previous books, “The Love-Charm of Bombs” — which followed five writers who lived in London during the Blitz — was the skill with which she built a world: following the different players, showing how they overlapped and drifted apart, the ways they were and were not shaped by their social context. But Feigel now has her doubts about the “social self,” and so even major figures in Lessing’s life hardly appear in “Free Woman.”

Marriage, singlehood; children, childlessness; communism, individualism; sensuality, abnegation — all these routes to freedom seem to end in disappointment for Feigel and Lessing alike. One wonders if disappointment is simply the price we must pay for being free in the first place. What is freedom? Perhaps: needing nothing but having everything, the possibilities of sex without the dependency of love, the anchoring of children without the self-erasures of motherhood.

Feigel ends her own search for freedom by recognizing the limitations of her body: her life is outside her control and will only become more so as she ages. Her journey with Lessing leaves her where she started: unsure of what to look for or expect from life, a condition she can now embrace as a kind of freedom. But if she’s still left in this ambiguous state, “Free Woman” suggests that at least she’s no longer alone.

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