The Fifth Child is the story of David and Harriet Lovatt — a young couple who meet, realize they have common values and goals, marry and decide to start a family — a family with lots of children. They purchase a giant house they can barely afford and begin having children — one right after another. Their life is full and busy and full of happiness — their extended family regularly stays for long visits at Christmas and Easter. David and Harriet are living their dream, until Harriet gets pregnant for the fifth time. This pregnancy is different in a way that Harriet cannot describe to anyone — it begins to change her and the way she feels about the unborn child. Then the fifth child arrives, and Harriet’s worst fears come true when the baby arrives and changes the family dynamic for the worse — ripping the family to pieces and causing Harriet to question whether a child can truly be unlovable and unwanted.
I read this book because of an article in Cookie magazine that recommended unusual books about motherhood. It sounded intriguing and a little freaky, so I had to see what it was all about. When I got the book from Paperback Swap, there were two blurbs on the back. The New York Review of Books called it “Terse and chilling…a witch’s brew of conflicting fears.” The New York Times Book Review called it “A horror story of maternity and the nightmare of social collapse … a moral fable of the genre that includes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and George Orwell’s 1984.”
I wouldn’t call this inaccurate as the book did indeed read more like a fable than a novel. There is not a lot of character development, and the writing is very terse and cold. And although the book is set in the 1960s, I could not shake the feeling that the story was taking place in the more distant past. It didn’t have a modern feel about it. I was also unable to “buy” into the character of Ben — the fifth child. I just couldn’t imagine that this type of child would exist; I guess that explains the comparison to Frankenstein. I’m willing to accept the idea of the girl in the Bad Seed more than Ben because the character of Ben seemed so exaggerated. Because of all this I didn’t love this book (but I suspect it isn’t a book that anyone would fall in love with). If it wasn’t a short read, I don’t know if I would have stuck with it.
All that being said, you do kind of get sucked into the story and want to find out what happens to the family and Ben. At the midpoint, Ben gets sent away to an institution, and the description of what happens there just made me ill. I was also very uncomfortable with the Harriet character, but I suspect that is Lessing’s point. She wants to make you uncomfortable. She wants to disturb you. The main questions of the book seem to be: Can a mother love any child — no matter how awful? Can a mother’s attention to one child ruin the lives of the others? Should a mother choose one child at the expense of the others? These are uncomfortable questions, and Lessing doesn’t give the reader an easy answer. I really don’t know what Harriet should have done or what I felt about her decisions. It was a strange and uncomfortable read.
The Bottom Line
If what I wrote about this book intrigued you, then you might want to check it out. It is not a long read, and the writing isn’t bad. However, I did not fall in love with this book and I wouldn’t really recommend it — I’m not really sure who might be interested in reading this type of book. I’m listing it on Paperback Swap so if you want to snag a copy, head on over. (I couldn’t, in good conscious, do a book giveaway of a book that I felt so ambivalent about.)
If you have read this book or reviewed it, I would love to hear what you think or get a link to your review and see what you thought.
The opening lines of the book: Harriett and David met each other at an office party that neither had particularly wanted to go to, and both knew at once that this was what they had been waiting for. Someone conservative, old-fashioned, not to say obsolescent; timid, hard to please: this is what other people called them, but there was no end to the unaffectionate adjectives they earned. They defended a stubbornly held view of themselves, which was that they were ordinary and in the right of it, should not be criticised for emotional fastidiousness, abstemiousness, just because these were unfashionable qualities.
As I was going to Amazon.com to get a link for the book in case you want to check out more about it, I saw that there is a sequel to this book called Ben in the World.This really surprised me, and although I don’t think I’ll be reading it, I do want to see what the heck she came up with to write about this particular character!