A Madeleine L’Engle Readathon: Her Adult Books Are Underrated

An excellent essay in The New York Review of Books, “L’Engle’s Cosmic Catechism” (March 12, 2020), sent me back to Madeleine L’Engle’s books–not to the Library of America volumes reviewed, The Kairos Novels (A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels) and the Polly O’Keefe  Quartet (The Arm of the Starfish and sequels), but to her adult books.

L’Engle is fiercely interested in religion, philosophy, and social justice, which is part of the appeal of her books.  Like many women my age, I was raised on L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a Newbery Award-winning science fiction book, which, on its simplest level, is a narrative about the battle between good and evil.  The smart but friendless Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallace, a mathematical prodigy, and her classmate Calvin O’Keefe, a math genius who is also a jock, travel through time and space, under the auspices of three supernatural beings, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.  The three children must free Mr. Murry, a physicist, from a prison controlled by a giant brain called It.  The question:  will we one day live on a planet controlled by conformity and computers, or will we manage to fight for human rights? 

I am unfamiliar with the second LOA volume, the Polly O’Keefe Quartet, though  I vaguely remember enjoying The Arm of the Starfish.  I do, however, strongly recommend L’Engle’s realistic children’s novels, standalones like Camilla and especially The Austin Chronicles, which focus on Vicky Austin and her loving yet complicated family.  Maybe LOA will take on these?

Here’s the thing you may not know, and I didn’t know back then:  L’Engle wrote several novels for adults. I didn’t click with them when I tried to read them in the ’80s:  their intensity, detailed exposition, and philosophical dialogue did not fit my idea of a good novel, which, in those arrogant days, was all about “show-don’t-tell.”

Perhaps another problem was that some of the characters were quite old, though I didn’t articulate that.  But can we imagine anything more boring than old age when we are in our 20s? 

I returned to L’Engle’s adult books ten years ago, and there is much to admire.  Two of them are on my bedside table right now.  I am on a second reading of A Severed Wasp (1982), an absorbing novel in which Katherine, a renowned pianist now in her seventies, has retired to New York City, and becomes involved in the politics of an Episcopalian cathedral. Katherine’s friend Felix, once a bad boy in Greenwich Village, now a retired Bishop, is terrified by events in the Cathedral. Katherine, too, feels it.  

Much of the plot is revealed in earnest dialogue about the 20th century: the characters intensely discuss music, religion, aging, crime in New York City,  power outages, and the Holocaust. Katherine was beaten up by a Nazi  for not collaborating with the Germans, and her pianist husband’s hands were broken for the same reason. His career as a musician was over.   She tells Felix that they were “unforgivably naive” about their danger in France, and reminds Felix that the Nazis tortured many people who were not Jewish.  

Recently I learned that A Severed Wasp is a sequel to L’Engle’s first novel,  The Small Rain (1945), which, according to the book jacket,  depicts Katherine’s coming-of- age as a musician.  It looks less interesting, but I will get around to it.  L’Engle likes to link her books: oddly, her 1968 childrne’s book, The Young Unicorns, takes place in (I assume) this same cathedral, in the same crime-ridden, terrifying neighborhood.  

I find L’Engle’s thoughts on aging fascinating.  She writes in A Severed Wasp:

She was Katherine Forrester Vigneras, not a chronological digit.  She did not want to lose any part of herself.  In her seventies she was still seven, and seventeen, and thirty-seven, and fifty. She was the music she played.  She had been formed as much by Bach and Brahms as by her parents.  No doubt the fact that her father had been a composer and her mother a pianist had made her awareness of herself as being part of music come far sooner than it might otherwise have come; but they were too preoccupied to give her the kind of day-to-day guidance which is part of the life of most American children.

And she acknowledges that she has failed her own children in the same way:  she was often on the road giving concerts instead of at home.

Perhaps not a good novel exactly, but I love it.  Maybe it’s something besides a novel.

Do let me know if you’ve read any of L’Engle’s adult books.