Overcome by midlife ennui, a Reader in Modern Literature and Culture at King's College London begins a rigorous study of Doris Lessing's oeuvre and life, on which she decides to model and document her own experiments in "free" living.
A reader in modern literature and culture at King’s College London, Feigel has something of Lessing’s diligent energy on the page, and in Free Woman she succeeds in making an extraordinary meditation on what it means to be a clever, engaged woman two generations after Lessing ... Feigel acknowledges that the freedom she desires and expects is less about freedom from servitude or want than about freedom to do as you please and exist outside categories of attachment, and hence is predicated on advantages of class, race and money. The reason this privilege does not sink the book is because she approaches her reordering of life around the precepts of Lessing and her protagonists with such focused earnestness, and with a classical, precise use of language ... Her technique is scrupulous, sparing neither herself nor others in a chronicle that is physically and intellectually intimate, in the manner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Confessions ... Feigel has thought seriously about the meaning of freedom ... Her quest in Free Woman to do things differently is too sincere to be self-indulgent.
Hers is a quest narrative, exploring ideas about freedom that she finds in Lessing’s biography and work—how, and at what cost, it might be found, sexually, politically, socially, intellectually, in passionate love, or alone in nature—and weaving them into an account of her doubts and concerns about the course of her own life and marriage ... Feigel is an attentive reader, but the slightly riskier part of her venture is its demand that attention be paid to the inner workings of her life, a life that is extraordinary only in its advantages. In the course of writing the book, she becomes aware that the sense of unfreedom she chafes at may have more to do with her own oppressive 'eagerness to please' ... Feigel’s goal is to describe her feelings and discoveries in as much detail as possible.
Fuelling the book is a sense of naive anger at the fact that modern womanhood is not what was promised. But there are only so many permutations in a life: coupledom or not, children or not — and they all entail loss ... Where the book is most interesting is in the moments it attempts a reckoning with the inheritance of the 1960s. Lessing’s freedoms were won against a society that expected her to stay at home with her husband and children. There are no such expectations of Feigel. What does the freedom to live non-monogamously look like in a society that doesn’t even require marriage? When marijuana is legal in several states across the US and micro-dosing LSD is a middle-class hobby, what does the freedom to 'turn on, tune in and drop out' mean? ... In Free Woman we have not got much closer to an unencumbered womanhood, nor what in the end we might want from it.