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.  

14 thoughts on “A Madeleine L’Engle Readathon: Her Adult Books Are Underrated”

  1. I’ve read a good many of L’Engle’s books, for children and adults. I reread The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp before I moved … as I was culling books on my shelves. I had kept them for many years, but after this read I decided to let them go, not believing I would feel the need to reread them again.

    That’s not to say I think they are not worth reading. I love the atmosphere she creates and the characters that you can tell are completely real to her. And the passion for art, and the philosophical/religious discussions in combination with scientific curiosity. This was all extremely formative for me as I was growing up. But in my later years I’ve become somewhat uncomfortable with some of the more unexamined elements in her books. Mainly to do with women who fall into unfortunate relationships and seem to be sleepwalking through them, not recognizing abuse and exploitation.

    It’s clearly a trigger for me personally, and don’t want to form opinions for anybody else. Just not something I really want to read about at the moment. But I will be interested to see what you think if you continue to explore more. I don’t have strong memories of other adult books though I know I read several.

    1. Very interesting! The heroine Katherine Forrester is so strong in A Severed Wasp, but I’m sure she’s quite different in The Small Rain–more vulnerable. And in A Live Coal from the Sea, a kind of sequel to Camilla, Camilla is very old, a successful scientist (as I remember), very strong, and also quite different from the young Camilla. Oddly, I can’t remember anything about Camilla’s granddaughter, who is the star of that one. It’s all a blur!

      It has been a good while since I read L’Engle’s books, and I don’t recall the exploitation in relationships. Different expectations then?

      1. There are lots of older men romancing teens. And that’s seen as perfectly fine, but lesbians are really scary and threatening. People of color are often villains, but Nazis are also fine (to have affairs with). There is wisdom and beauty in the books but also a lot of weirdness like that — a mixed bag. Certain elements rise to the top depending on one’s perspective while reading, I think.

        1. Oh no! I don’t remember that at all, which shows that some books are best not reread. A Severed Wasp seems to be fine, though. 🙂

  2. I read “A Severed Wasp” and “A Small Rain” years ago, when I was probably too young to properly appreciate them. I should probably reread them at some point.

    1. I’m fascinated by A Severed Wasp. I find myself appreciating it more this time, but it IS the best of her adult books–at least hose I’ve read!

  3. A very interesting review and I headed to Abebooks to see if I could score a copy of Severed Wasp. There were many but I then also tried Amazon and lo and behold it is a free book under the Kindle Unlimited program! I will be reading it “soon” in the specialized meaning of that word to whom that time-frame has been promised to many a tome. But quite soon. Yep.

    1. Oh, that’s great that it’s a Kindle Unlimited book! You never know what’ll turn up there. I am really enjoying A Severed Wasp, but I know all too soon what you mean about soon…

  4. I remember really liking A Small Rain and A Severed Wasp many, many years ago. I also read her memoir type books.

  5. Interesting! No, I’ve not read any of her adult novels. I’m not sure whether the line between philosophy and religiosity would waver too far towards institutionalized worship for my liking. But I do share your love of the Austin series. Did you know that they reissued Meet the Austins at some point (many years after I reread it so frequently as a girl, and before I most recently reread the series to complete it – but I ended up reading my old – less complete – copy).

    1. L’Engle’s adult books are probably not as her good as her children’s books. I do like A Severed Wasp, though. Oh, I’m glad the Austin series lives. I wanted to go on that camping trip in The Moon by Night. (My mother said absolutely no, and I felt the same way after I went camping as an adult!)

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