As in The Golden Notebook, Mrs. Lessing is concerned with the situation of present-day women. But her treatment of the emotional gulf that opens up before a forty-five-year-old woman no longer needed as a wife and mother is a starting point for much more - a confrontation wit the threat of annihilation, the terrors of old age and death.
Kate Brown is faced for the first time in twenty years with the prospect of being alone. Her children are grown; her husband, a successful neurologist, is going to work for some months in an American hospital. Urged by him to take a job, she finds herself acting as interpreter for an international conference on food, becoming substitute mother to all the delegates, flying off to Turkey for another conference, to Spain for an affair with a younger man - all the traditional outlets... But none of this turns out as she might have expected, and this summer of exploration, freedom and self-discovery, during which she rejects the stereotypes of femininity - that, like her conventional clothes, do not fit her any longer - becomes more than a private stocktaking; what Kate discovers in this time of crisis enrages and appalls her as it brings her face to face with herself.
At the beginning of the novel, Kate Brown is a fashionable and competent woman in a suburban garden; before it ends, she is stripped of everything she believes she is. The Summer Before the Dark is told in direct narrative, simply; but through dreams, through archetype and myth, the woman is related to the dark impersonal forces that underlie all our lives.
As The London Times said, in reviewing her last novel, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 'Mrs. Lessing has become a universal novelist.'