Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In Which I Finish a Young Adult Novel

I took a break from Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet because I was less than thrilled with The Wind in the Door. I'm happy to say that I was more enchanted by A Swiftly Tilting Planet. So much so that I am almost sorry that there is a book in between the first and third of the quartet.

The one thought I had as I read A Swiftly Tilting Planet is that L'Engle's understanding of quantum physics and chaos theory is better written, developed, and explored in these novels written for adults than it is in such pseudo-scientific presentations as The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know? There is obviously something ironic about a series of young adult novels being more sophisticated and relevant than these Oprah hyped best-sellers.

L'Engle takes a mythic theme--brother against brother--and explores it through time as Charles Wallace travels from time to time with the help of an annoying unicorn. As a reader I quickly saw the interconnectedness that it took Charles and Meg many leaps to make. And the shifts through time quickly becomes confusing as names blur into meaninglessness. Family names change through time but are so similar that it is challenging to differentiate between one person and another. It would be an incredibly confusing book to read over an extended period of time.

My biggest complaint about the book is that although L'Engle does a good job of re-exploring the iconic Cain and Abel story this theme has been explored better by other writers. If I were to recommend a novel about this theme of struggle and redemption I would direct any reader to Steinbeck's East of Eden without hesitation; the character of Lee remains one of the few literary characters I have ever wished to know in real life. Unfortunately, by this third book, I didn't really care about Meg or Charles Wallace. I am going to force myself to read the fourth book simply because I am curious to do so but the romance I have for A Wrinkle in Time is being worn down by the relationship with these characters lasting too long. Perhaps Many Waters will redeem the series and make a quartet a necessisity rather than a means of milking a cash cow.


  1. As a long time devotee of Madeline L'Engle (I have read nearly every book she ever published, even the one's out of print) I am compelled to give a bit of my thoughts to your journal entry.

    I never believed that what she was writing about in A Swiftly Tilting Planet was really a re-exploration of Cain & Able. Yes she used that as the convention to put the story in perspective, but what I got out of it, and continue to get out of it is two fold. First, the choices we make, no matter how mundane seeming at the time, could actually change the course of history (our own or the worlds). This concept, when I read it at 15 had a profound effect because it made me feel the immense responsibility of my actions (not that I was always conscious but it did make me more aware). And second, you can not try to force fate or direct it to do your bidding without consequences. Throughout the story, each time Charles Wallace tried to make the unicorn go to a specific time/place, he ran into terrible problems, but if he gave into the wind, he had more of an opportunity to see the story unfold.

    The thing is, I don't think Madeline L'Engle was ever a great writer per say. Her prose is a bit pedestrian and unpolished. I think that was why she stuck with young adult and didn't explore her more adult books more often. But she had stories to tell and she took those opportunities to explore things that interested her at the time. AND she had an amazing capacity to touch people. I saw her speak once and when I went up to have her sign a book I promptly and unexplainably burst into tears. Her daughter, who was with her at the time, patted my hand and told me that it happened all the time.

    Her books when taken one at a time, don't necessarily show the amazing interconnectedness of two worlds she created. She created one world that was set in a timeless time and another world that was set in our time line. I was compelled to continue my journey through her books because every book I read lead me, whether directly or indirectly, to learned more about the lives of people I loved and cared about in previous books.

    I also started reading her at 13 and I do really think that there are things we gain with experience that makes us a bit jaded towards the stuff she was trying to explore for young adults. Wind in the Door was amazing to me at that time because it gave me a perspective on the human body and how there was actually consciousness inside my body. A crazy and interesting concept at that time.

    Anyway, I am not disparaging your journal entry, just felt compelled to give another perspective.

  2. Geenetzie, Wow! I really appreciate your comments and I think that you and I agree that the books are good and you seem to agree that maybe they are best appreciated by the audience for whom they were written. I will, however, disagree with you on the connection between ASTP and the Cain and Abel them mostly because Cain and Abel are mentioned in the text itself and L'Engle was not being as subtle in this book as she had been in the previous books re. her religious themes/inspiration. (Of course, whatever subtlety she had was out the window by the time she wrote Many Waters. LOL!) Perhaps if she hadn't mentioned the Biblical story at all I would just say that I was overlaying my own interpretation.

    Have you read any of her nonfiction? If not, you might enjoy them as much as I did. When I do choose to read more of L'Engle's works I have little doubt that I'll gravitate towards the Crosswick books. I think I prefer her non-fiction having been spoiled by the Genesis Trilogy.

  3. I HAVE read the Crosswick books. I own almost everything she has ever published. She was an interesting lady, if you are interested in her life you should read a two-part invention: the story of a marriage, it's pretty revealing in some ways (though it's funny because I once heard a comment that one of her kids called a "complete invention," LOL i think they though she was romanticizing the past) but it does touch upon how she became so religious. Yeah, I think if I had found her as an adult I would have found her religious overtones a bit much for my taste. But as a kid, it didn't really sink in.

    I WOULD however recommend rather than staying completely away from her fiction, you might want to give her first ever published book The Small Rain a shot. I thought it was a beautiful story that she wrote in her 20's. I loved the heroine Katherine Forester, an aspiring concert pianist trying to find her place in the world. (a theme she explored through many female characters) Unfortunately, the sequel The Severed Wasp is not as good.

    (also a bit about me: I am a friend of Anne Elliott who is a friend of Janice who has become an internet buddy of mine as well - which is how I found your journal :) )

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  5. I'll definitely keep my eyes open for that since you have recommended it and seem dead familiar with L'Engle's works. :)

    Also, given that you found me through Janice's blogand presumably her memoirs . . . and you mention that L'Engle's children disputed the veracity of her own memoirs you definitely bring up a curious point re. the reliable voice. Have you read Janice's memoirs? If so then you probably know why my very high opinion of her writing is probably not the most reliable and yet I have a very high opinion of my opinion so I would definitely dispute that. LOL!