Feb 23 2012 3:00pm

The Need for Forgiveness: A House Like a Lotus

Before I go on to discuss this week’s book, A House Like a Lotus, a quick point about the Madeleine L’Engle reread in regards to racism, homophobia and other issues.

If I have seemed harsh on L’Engle on these matters — and I may well have been — it’s because I am talking about Madeleine L’Engle, a writer who in her earlier books was arguing for inclusivity, tolerance and the careful use of language to describe minority groups, and an author who, as others have mentioned, was renowned for expanding the horizons of young readers. I am not particularly surprised when an Edith Nesbit, who was completely unconcerned with racial equality, drops a stereotypical image or uses the n-word in her books.

But from L’Engle, however, who lived through World War II, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, and who was concerned with racial issues, this is more surprising. Particularly when, as in A Winter’s Love and A House Like a Lotus, she shows, in side passages, that she is completely aware of questionable portrayals of Native Americans, Jews and Nazis — and then makes these portrayals in any case. And in her early Austin and Murry books she argued for love and tolerance for all. At the same time, this was presented in a realistic vein: it is very difficult for Vicky to learn to tolerate Maggy, much less love her—and Maggy is merely annoying, not evil; while Meg never does manage to love IT. And in these books she recognized the differences between forgiveness and love, which are not always the same thing.

This changed in later books, which is why I bring it up for discussion. Certainly, Meg’s realization that she could forgive and even love Mr. Jenkins in A Wind in the Door somewhat foreshadows Katherine’s affair with Lukas in A Severed Wasp. But Mr. Jenkins is not inherently evil, and in A Wind in the Door, everyone not an Echthroi can be loved. This is less true in later books.

As I noted in the reread for The Glorious Impossible, I think a portion of this comes from the significant problems L’Engle, as a thoughtful, intellectual Christian, had with reconciling the unquestioned and obvious existence of evil with her belief in a divine, all powerful, Christ of love. This is hardly a question unique to L’Engle; what is perhaps somewhat less usual is the way science expanded L’Engle’s faith and awareness of the unlimited power of a divine creator, while making her question the role of humans and science. And this resulted in some books I find difficult to read, precisely because of expectations raised by earlier books.

Okay, onwards to A House Like A Lotus.

In A House Like a Lotus (1984), Madeleine L’Engle decided to give Polly O’Keefe, last seen in Dragons in the Waters, a book of her own, told in the first person. This is not the brash, confident, more than occasionally tactless Polly O’Keefe of her two earlier appearances. Rather, this is a somber, doubtful Polly O’Keefe, unsure of her place in the world, unsure of what she wants to be when she grows up, enthralled with poetry. In fact, this is, in all respects, Vicky Austin, right down to the more beautiful, more popular younger sister—here transformed into a cousin Kate—and the brother she feels closer to. So close is the resemblance that I am more than half convinced that this book was originally meant to be the next book in the Austin series (which may help to explain why the always annoying Zachary Grey showed up to irritate readers in this book) until L’Engle realized that she just could not do certain things to Vicky, a character she very closely identified with.

But she could do them to Polly.

Polly O’Keefe has arrived in Greece to try to recover from her traumatic memories of South Carolina and her elderly and dying artist friend Max (told in flashback format), and learn something about forgiveness and love. As with nearly all L’Engle books, it is filled with, often glorious, endlessly quotable prose, and tidbits about stars and science and wonder, and urges compassion and forgiveness. And yet I find portions of it difficult to forgive.

The first problem is Meg, once again stripped of the anger and passion that made her so compelling in A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. In this book, we get a hint of an explanation—a guess from another character—of why Meg has avoided earning a doctorate: she felt intimidated by her brilliant and beautiful scientist mother, and was determined that her daughters would not feel the same, though she plans to earn her doctorate once her daughters have graduated. We get hints that she is dissatisfied with this, and that her marriage, while still good, is under strain. All well and good, but this is not the Meg Murry of the Time books.

I also find myself frustrated with the depiction of Polly, who just does not think the way a girl raised both in Europe and the U.S. would think. Oh, her feeling of isolation at school is fine, but the book strikes a discordant note early on, when a Greek customs agent pulls one of Polly’s notebooks from her bag, and reads it before scowling and putting it back. Polly notes:

“What I wrote was obviously not in the Greek alphabet, so she couldn’t have got much out of it.”

Except that Polly, of all people, with her travelling, and the fact that she herself brought this up in just her last book, would be aware that she could not assume that the Greek customs agent could not speak or read English. It’s one of several little moments that keep Polly from ringing true for me.

Two more minor plot gripes: I’m not sure why L’Engle felt the need to invent an illness for Max to die from, given the number of various already slow-killing diseases already in existence, since it never ends up being a plot point. And I find it dubious that international attendees at a literature conference would know “Silent Night” but be completely ignorant of Shakespeare and sonnets.

But a more glaring issue is the book’s portrayal of its two lesbian/bisexual characters, Max and Ursula. They are, to L’Engle’s credit, rich, three-dimensional characters who have enjoyed successful careers and intriguing lives. But Max is presented as a tragic figure, and although their relationship is an open secret among Polly’s peers and apparently everyone else, all of the characters, including Max and Ursula, treat their relationship as something that should be hidden and not discussed. Polly even says that it should go back into the closet, where it belongs.

Adding to this is the general sense that homosexuality is not a good thing: even a hint of it gets students–and Polly–harassed in school, and her siblings and cousin find themselves denying the charge. This was certainly true in the 1980s, and rings true in the book, but can make for painful reading now, especially when combined with Meg and Calvin’s relief to hear that their daughter is not gay.

Which leads to the painful scene where the elderly, dying and very drunk Max made what seems to be a pass at the considerably younger Polly. What exactly Max did is not clear from the text, but it is enough to send Polly running from the house into the rain—abandoning an elderly, dying and drunk woman to her own devices. It is depicted as a terrible betrayal on Max’s part.

And so it is. But the only person who actually SLEEPS with Polly in this book? Is a straight man.

The straight man is Renny, presented as trustworthy and kind, someone Polly has been sorta dating, despite the age difference (he is in his mid-20s; she is 16) for several months. When a distraught Polly encounters him after whatever happened with Max, Renny sleeps with her, knowing that she’s in emotional shock. (They don’t use birth control.) I can’t exactly call it rape—Polly is willing, very willing. Their sex scene is well handled and beautifully written, and I like L’Engle’s reassurance that losing one’s virginity does not have to be traumatic, and I like her acknowledgement that sex does not always equal love, or vice versa.

But I’m also aware that consensual or not, it’s also statutory rape—and that Renny, by his own confession, took advantage of Polly’s traumatized state.

No one, except Renny, thinks this needs forgiveness.

Everyone, except Polly, thinks that she must forgive Max for her offense.

Polly’s uncle Sandy not only tells her that she needs to forgive Max for a fairly appalling breach of emotional trust, but that the entire incident was partly Polly’s fault: it happened because Polly put Max on a pedestal, a blaming of the victim which I find rather chilling.

Speaking of Sandy’s judgement calls: he also strongly disapproves of Zachary Grey. Admittedly, I am inclined to agree with Sandy here — Zachary is his usual self in this book: annoying, throwing money around, going on and on about his death wish, and so on, and I could happily toss the guy into the Aegean and out of the book, and if Sandy were pointing this stuff out, I’d be totally on his side.

But Sandy doesn’t object to any of this. Rather, Sandy dislikes Zachary because Sandy dislikes Zachary’s father—a family relationship Zachary cannot help. And at this point in the book, Zachary has done nothing except to escort Polly around various archaeological sites, doing so largely because Sandy and his wife Rhea chose to catch up on work and leave Polly on her own in Athens for a few days. I can readily understand why the confused and lonely Polly is eager for Zachary’s company, especially since Zachary, unlike certain other characters in this book, respects Polly’s boundaries when she tells him she’s not comfortable with anything more than a kiss.

Later, after Sandy’s objections, Zachary and Polly head out on a boat, and nearly drown in a boating accident. Zachary, naturally, whines all the way through it and does not exactly cover himself in glory (and while I’m complaining, dude, yes, lifejackets can be bulky and smelly but if you are not a strong swimmer and you’re out in a kayak, you should be wearing one).

Various characters, including one who has not exactly been forthcoming about his marital status even while engaged in flirtation with the younger Polly, respond to this with cries of “evil evil.” Undeserved cries. It is, to repeat, an accident. In a book which includes adults deserting their teenage niece in a strange city, school kids engaged in distressing gossip, an inappropriate drunken pass, statutory rape, and several other incidents, well.

Let’s compare, shall we?

Having a father you can’t help and getting involved in a boating accident = Unredeemable evil, stop hanging out with the guy.

Concealing your married state while flirting with a sixteen year old = let’s be friends.

Getting drunk and making a pass at a terrified girl decades your junior = Okay, a bad move, doubtless, but something the terrified girl has to forgive.

Abandoning your teenage niece for a few days in an unknown city and urging her to forgive and become friends again with a woman who made an inappropriate gesture at her = Supportive!

Sleeping with your traumatized underage girlfriend = what’s to forgive?

It’s not that I don’t get the Zachary dislike. I do. But I have a problem with a book that tells me that Max and Zachary have dark sides that need to be forgiven, but that Renny, the only person in the book to commit an actual crime, has done nothing to need forgiveness at all. I’m not excusing Max, and I’m definitely not excusing Zachary, but I’d like to see some sense from anyone other than Renny that he needs some forgiveness as well. And I have a problem with a book that takes such a harsh moral stance against a boating accident, while telling a young girl that she has to forgive one sexual predator—while failing to realize that the other one even exists.

A House Like a Lotus does do a beautiful job of describing the many, often difficult, stages of forgiveness, and of showing the inner peace that can come when that forgiveness is finally reached. And here, L’Engle does not make the mistake of having Polly fall in love with any of the people who have taken advantage of her or nearly drowned her. But even with its powerful messages of love and forgiveness, it is not always the easiest book to read, or forgive.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

This article is part of The Madeleine L'Engle Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. between4walls
Under what laws is sleeping with a consenting sixteen-year-old statutory rape? The majority of US states (31/50) set the age of consent at 16, including South Carolina and Connecticut. I can't agree with your analysis of this aspect of the plot. Taking advantage of a traumatic situation for sex is scummy, but it's garden-variety scummy, not criminal.

Admittedly I haven't read this book since I was ten years old (it's not a nice book, though it definitely expanded my horizons). At that point I really, really needed to hear that thing about not putting people on pedestals. However, Sandy does not come off well telling Polly that when she's been victimized by someone he encouraged her to befriend in the first place!

For some reason the thing that stuck with me in the intervening years was Ursula giving Polly warm milk after she runs away from Max.

"the unquestioned and obvious existence of evil"

Funny thing is, my mother hated A Wrinkle in Time because she doesn't believe in evil and so couldn't believe a villain like IT. (And she grew up in postwar Europe with a parent who had spent years in hiding and come within hours of being executed by the Fascists.)

Do you mean the unquestioned and obvious existence of evil in the world, or the unquestioned existence of evil in the books?
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
@between4walls -- Grr, you are right about the legal age; I'd misread it as 17 in South Carolina. My bad.

However -- I'm going to stick with my point that the guy is 10 years older than she is and takes advantage of her when she's in emotional shock, distraught, and trying to prove to herself that she's not a lesbian. It's wrong.

L'Engle presents the existence of evil as unquestioned and obvious in several books, including this one. Others are going to disagree for any variety of philosophical reasons or personal experience. My own inclination is that yes, evil exists, not as a shapeless entity, but in the form of cruelty, greed, and so on. L'Engle and I don't define or see evil the same way, but we agree that it exists.
3. Off Season Fire Sale
Some US states have sliding scale age of consent laws, including for 16 year olds when the partner is older. Examples: Florida and Idaho. Maybe more - I don't have time to keep reading.

Of course, that might or might not have applied in Greece at the time. (They were in Greece, right? It's been a while since I read this book and I forget.)

I do remember being unsettled by the lesbian = gross undertone or subtext or whatever you want to call it.
4. HelenS
The age of consent in Greece is 15. But I agree with it seeming like statutory rape, what with the difference in age and all, and it would have been such in quite a lot of US states.

I didn't even remember that part of the book (haven't read it in years -- remembered almost nothing except a little bit about the scene with Max's drunken pass), but the lack of condom use rather horrifies me, especially given the date -- AIDS was spreading pretty fast then, no? to say nothing of the possibility of impregnating a 16-year-old from a probably anti-choice family.
5. Off Season Fire Sale
Oh, they were in North Carolina? Never mind. And thanks, Mari, for doing this re-read. I spent a little time earlier today periodically refreshing the site to see if your piece had gone live.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@Off Season Fire Sale - Yeah, they were in South Carolina, where the age of consent is 16 -- I got that wrong, so this isn't statutory rape, but I still find it questionable. Polly doesn't sleep with anyone in Greece, although she's attracted to two different guys.

And yes, there's a distinct undercurrent of lesbian = gross, although mitigated by the presence of Ursula, an emotionally healthy and professionally successful lesbian. But Meg and Calvin tell their kids that Max and Ursula's sex life is none of their business (very true) and that mean gossip is wrong, and yet never quite manage to say that being a lesbian is ok; it's more than they're friends with Max and Ursula in spite of the lesbianism. And they are both relieved when Polly says that she's straight.

In a related problem, inappropriate sexual behavior from adults to teens/younger children generally comes from gays/lesbians in L'Engle novels -- with the exception here of Renny, where the act is not regarded as wrong.

@HelenS - The book was published in 1984, so I'm guessing that means a writing date of 1982 to 1983 -- in which case, AIDS was just coming into the public consciousness in the U.S. Even as late as 1984 I was incorrectly assured that you couldn't "get AIDS" unless you were gay or had hemophilia. (Why shooting up heroin was left out of that list, I don't know, especially since that was certainly a behavior that the adults around us would have wanted to discourage. But I digress.)

Anyway, AIDS never pops up as a concern here. Pregnancy does, and both Polly and Renny seem a little too assured that she's in the correct part of her cycle, but perhaps I've seen too many TV shows where the girl gets pregnant after just one time. I don't know if Meg and Calvin are anti-choice, but certainly seven children suggests that they would not have been enthusiastic about abortion as an option.
7. Off Season Fire Sale
I agree that the age difference is totally creepy and offputting, regardless of the legality.

I haven't read all the L'Engle books, and my memory is fuzzy for the ones I have, but I don't know if abortion was ever even mentioned in her books? I have a hard time picturing her writing any sympathetic characters who would have been okay with abortion.
8. StrongDreams
I find it interesting that the comments here focus solely on the statutory (or not) rape (or not) and not any of the other disquieting aspects of this book. In real life, when 16-year olds sleep with 26-year olds, there is almost always something broken about one or both of them. There is a huge difference between 16/26 and 26/36. The moral compass of this book seems strangely oriented for a committed Christian.

And for what it's worth, my girlfriend in high school got pregnant the first and only time we had unprotected sex. (My daughter is now a schoolteacher and mom of my grandson.)
Sean Arthur
9. wsean
Yeah, I'm not sure why the age-of-consent laws where the story takes place should really alter how we see this act. If they suddenly realize they were across the border in a different state with different laws, does it make this any more wrong than it already was?
10. between4walls
@wsean- I only brought up age of consent laws because the review incorrectly referred to the act as "statutory rape" and "an actual crime" and I wanted to correct that.
However that doesn't change the rightness/wrongness of the act (the age of consent is 13 in Spain, but I think we'd all have a problem with a 23 year old sleeping with a 13 year old.
At any rate, I didn't mean to send the thread off on a tangent, there's lots of other stuff in the book to discuss.
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams
The sexuality of Ursula and Max was brought up at dinner by 'Cousin Kate' and Xan- one of Polly's brothers. (I had mis-remembered it as Charles, but just looked it up) It's referred to as gossip and morbid interest to know about the characters' relationships. Having lived through that time in the US, I can only be glad to be in now- even with the imperfections of our era. (and perhaps in 35 years, people will be looking at our fiction and shaking their heads).

Re Zachary- the kayak accident is caused by his reaching to kiss Polly and rocking the boat. The problem is made worse because Zachary, as usual, insisted on going beyond the boundaries, into the open water. (Funny how the only boundaries he respects are those of girls saying 'No.') On the plus side, he has just told her that he doesn't want to live the rich and powerful life of his father.

And in California, at least, an adult having sex with a 16-year old can be prosecuted for statutory rape.
12. Jacqie
Very graceful intro to your post. I apologize for some rather strident writing in the Severed Wasp post- that's a book that I remember quite fondly.

I don't think I've read this one-one of the few I haven't read. But on the topic of what to expect from authors. I tend to edge more toward forgiveness and leniency when reading authors who had their heyday in an earlier era, something I think that can safely be said of L'engle. Her earlier books are the ones that shine most for me, probably because I read them when I was younger and just discovering science fiction. I liked the fact that there were smart female protagonists. As someone whose mother didn't work because of parents' religious beliefs, the fact that Meg's mother was a scientist AND mother (yes, she did work at home) was one of the first experiences I had with that idea.
Ironically, I suppose I wouldn't be as forgiving of an actual family member for showing the inclinations towards racism/sexism/etc that L'engle does show. But she was such an influence in helping me find my own values that I'm more tolerant of her imperfections, I suppose.

I recently re-read "Once and Future King", another old favorite. T.H. White was most likely gay himself, and you can see the pain of that in his writing of Lancelot. He couldn't acknowledge it (I think it was still a crime in England then) or write directly that a character was gay. He also definitely bought into some of the Freudian ideas about women at the time in his portrayal of Guenevere, and had some rather racist passages about the Scots.

These issues do date the book, but the writing is still beautiful and I still love it. I think he was trying his best within what he knew, what he had learned, and what he was in that society and in that time.

I think that Madeleine L'engle probably dates herself in much the same way. We had to come from where she was in order to get to where we are. To discount the help she gave in getting to what I think is a much more tolerant society than the one she wrote in discounts the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and wouldn't be where we are now without them.

I may not read more of these deconstructions, for they seem more focused on what the author did not do than what she did.
13. between4walls
The boating accident, unlike most other bad decisions in this book, was potentially fatal. So was having unprotected sex, but we don't know what exactly they know about AIDS. So I see "stay away from this guy!" since his recklessness could have got them both killed.

"Evil, evil," though...Zachary functions as a sort of straw man of ideas L'Engle doesn't like (courting death and cheating death). Yet this same quality makes him attractive to the protagonists, because he's different and they're not going to hear these ideas anywhere else. Perhaps more so in the Austin books than in the Polly books.
14. between4walls
@MariCats- Thanks for explaining about evil, I was confused by your comment but now it makes sense.

I'm getting the impression that A Winter's Love is definitely one to skip. It seems like it was a flawed early novel (1957) only republished because of the success of L'Engle's later books.
Mari Ness
15. MariCats
@Strongdreams and @wsean -- The statutory rape bit came up because the first comment corrected me on the law in South Carolina. I think we all seem to be in agreement that the relationship is inappropriate regardless of what South Carolina says about it.

@Strongdreams -- The Christian focus of the book is mostly on the importance of forgiveness, even for the seemingly unforgiveable or difficult to forgive. Once Polly is able to forgive Max and Zachary, she gains inner peace.

My real problem is less with the insistence on forgiveness (although I'm not comfortable with asking a teenager to forgive someone who has apparently attempted to sexually assault her) and more with the insistence that Polly needs to be friends again with Max after this. Which, er. No. Forgiveness is one thing -- as I said, it brings Polly peace, and I think that's good. Friendship is another.

@Pam Adams and Between4walls, re Zachary: The problem is made worse because even though Zachary knows he has a heart condition and can't swim well, HE ISN'T WEARING A LIFEJACKET. It's hard enough to flip a kayak back over in open water (it can be done, but, it's hard) but doing so while having to keep a non-swimmer afloat is virtually impossible. If he'd been wearing a lifejacket Polly might have been able to flip the kayak back over and get them both back into the boat.


So, yes, some very bad and potentially fatal decision making here which we can add to the reasons why Zachary sucks. However, I think it's a lot less awful than other things going on in this book.

@Between4walls - The thing is, people tell Polly to avoid Zachary BEFORE the boating accident. I get that afterwards they have proof that he's reckless and not interested in following basic boating safety rules (lifejackets are your friends, people!) It's when they are criticizing him before the accident, when he hasn't done anything except have a jerk as a father, that I have a problem.
Beth Mitcham
16. bethmitcham
I thought nobody knew about Remmy sleeping with her? I got the very strong impression that Polly's parents would have been really upset -- they liked Remmy because they thought he was "safe." I don't remember anyone approving of it.

Remmy clearly understood it as a large transgression, and felt supremely lucky that Polly wasn't more damaged by it.
Pamela Adams
17. PamAdams
Isn't Renny related somehow to Simon from Starfish?
Mari Ness
18. MariCats
@Jacqie -- I'm going to try again, because I think you are missing my point:

In this and other rereads, I am absolutely considering the eras in which the authors wrote, setting them in the context of those eras. In the case of The Severed Wasp and this book, these are books written and published in the early 80s, by a writer who lived through World War II.

The major issue is that as the world around her grew more tolerant, L'Engle grew less tolerant. As other commentators have pointed out, she has more problematic descriptions of lower class and non-white characters in A Severed Wasp (1982) than in The Young Unicorns (1968). She decries stereotypical descriptions of "native" people in this book (1984) and goes right back to them in later books. Her typical for the time but questionable now depictions of gays in New York in A Severed Wasp (1982) turns into outright homophobia and in A Live Coal in the Sea (1996). Her realistic and believable families, characters and decision making in Meet the Austins (1960), Camilla (1951), The Moon By Night (1963), The Joys of Love (written in the 1940s) turn into the melodrama and soap opera stuff we see in later books. By the 1980s, she was living, as you put it, in a more tolerant society than the one she had grown up in.

So the issue is not, as you say again, that I need to judge L'Engle by her era. I am. That's precisely why I have a problem. I do agree with you that her earlier books are by far the better ones, and again, precisely why I have a problem.
Mari Ness
19. MariCats
@bethmitcham -- That was another bit that bothered me. They don't know about the sex, no. But they do know that Polly is going to the movies and coffee and hanging out with the much older guy, and nobody says anything, which I found incredibly unrealistic given the period, and given that Meg, Calvin, Sandy, Max and Ursula are all presented as concerned adults. I kept expecting them to say SOMETHING, but they didn't. And, for that matter, ask more probing questions about what was going on with Renny.

I was glad that Renny apologized, but still.

@Pam Adams -- They're both members of the Renier family, who feature in other L'Engle books that I haven't read.
20. Julie Kahan
"problems L’Engle, as a thoughtful, intellectual Christian, had with reconciling the unquestioned and obvious existence of evil with her belief in a divine, all powerful, Christ of love."

Funny, I had been thinking that having a purely evil antagonist (the echthroi), as opposed to one motivated by greed or the like, was very weak as a literary device, so I assumed that L'Engle put it in because (if I understand correctly) Christian theology teaches that there really is pure evil out there.
21. bianca steele
Will you be doing The Other Side of the Sun? It seemed to me to be in some ways L'Engle's most successful adult novel, or at least her most genre-type novel--even my mother, not an SF fan, had acquired a mass market paperback of it somehow. It also had a lot about magic, and L'Engle's attitude toward this, which as far as I can remember only also shows up in A Severed Wasp.
22. Viola
When I first read this book as a queer teenager in the 1980s, I was absolutely delighted, because it had actual gay people in it-- and gay people who were successful artists, scientists and parent-figures/role models; at the time, it seemed to me that gay people were either absent in books and on television, or else were awful stereotypes (although I'll confess I was also disappointed that Meg hadn't grown up to be a brilliant scientist taking the mathematical world by storm, as I'd always thought she would).

Fast-forward ten years to when I read it again, and I was appalled-- I still thought Max and Ursula were great, but I was noticing how the book made it plain that the Murray-O'Keefes were friends with them *despite* their sexuality-- there was in particular a sanctimonious little speech from Calvin to that effect which really bothered me-- and that there was this whole "love the sinner, hate the sin!" vibe about their treatment. On the one hand, it shows the progress we've made, but on the other, it made me lose respect for Madeleine L'Engle.

That having been said, I thought the situation with Renny and Polly was actually more subtle than that, and underlines why, I think, there is an element of statutory rape in the emotional, if not the legal sense: although Polly is *willing* to have sex, she's not really emotionally mature enough for it, and, although Renny realises this afterwards, which is why he seeks forgiveness from her, Polly, due to her immaturity, doesn't actually realise what was wrong until she goes to Greece and realises that she'd developed some inappropriate ideas about sex and love, which is the point at which she forgives Max. So I thought it was less that no one thinks Renny's acts need forgiveness, than that Polly (who's the only other person able to comment on the matter) doesn't *think* they need forgiveness, until she grows up a bit and figures out what was wrong.
23. bianca steele
And, I forgot to add, is, I think, about the Reniers. It's a historical novel set at the beginning of the twentieth century. Several characters are freed slaves, and they are among the most morally admirable characters in the book, but on a re-read there is a paternalism there, too (as there is in The Arm of the Starfish). Put all together, it comes to something more than "what everybody, even people of good will, thought at the time."
Mari Ness
24. MariCats
@Julie Kahan -- Well, it kinda depends upon what Christian theology we're talking about -- not all Christians hold identical beliefs on this point. The issue is reconciling the existence of suffering with the faith/belief in an unlimited, all powerful God of love. Some Christians, L'Engle included, reconcile this with acknowledging/believing in the active presence of evil.

With that said I thought the Echthroi sorta did have a motivation - they liked destroying things and thought it was fun. Not the most in depth character motivation, I grant you, but there.

@bianca steele - No, I won't be covering The Other Side of the Sun. The only other adult L'Engle novels I'll be discussing are A Winter's Love (which will pop up at the end of the reread, since it wasn't added until after I'd already passed its publication date), The Joys of Love (which Macmillan is currently marketing as a young adult, not adult novel, although it was originally written for adults), and assuming I can get through it A Live Coal in the Sea.

@Viola -- Yes.

Incidentally, young adult books featuring gay/lesbian characters began to appear in the 1960s; libraries, however, generally declined to stock them, which in turn did not make publishers eager to print more. Which is why like you I can't remember finding many gay/lesbian characters in young adult books, although I certainly found them in adult books. (Including, oddly enough, Agatha Christie, not someone coming to mind as a major proponent of character inclusivity.) That doesn't necessarily make me much fonder of the "love the sinner, hate the sin" attitude or the relief when Calvin and Meg realize that their daughter is not gay, though, despite what one commentator is arguing, I do recognize this as typical of the time when the book was written.

I'll just note that Polly never thinks Renny needs forgiveness, even after she works out her thoughts about Max. And that's a problem: she's obsessing over one gesture? Motion? What? from Max, and completely ignoring the actual sex. (I also keep thinking that at her age, she should be thinking about that more.) It feeds back into the "gay=icky" "straight=better" undercurrent of the book, however powerful Ursula is as a role model.
Beth Mitcham
25. bethmitcham
From what I remember, Remmy was seen as a lonely adult who was young enough to like movies and stuff with Polly, but no one (including him) considered him a real romantic interest for her. He was more of an honorary uncle. Although now that I think of it, I think he'd stop the boat for some chaste kisses or something? just to be polite?

Now I don't understand why that didn't strike me as odd. I vividly remember him saying that he had been lusting after her all summer and her complete astonisment that he had even noticed her sexually; she had a crush on him but it was a safe one. So to me it always felt creepily like having sex with your new-hire high school teacher.

Anyway, to me as a kid, his having sex with her was a MUCH bigger deal than whatever happened with Max, which didn't really register as sexual to me. I assumed Max was just drunk and gross. But nice guy grad student taking advantage like that -- majorly awful. And it leaves her feeling like it's harder to refuse sex with other people, since she's not a protected virgin any more.
26. HelenS
And it leaves her feeling like it's harder to refuse sex with other people, since she's not a protected virgin any more.

Oh, lord. I am so, so thankful to those who taught me that having sex the first time is just about one decision you made one time, and doesn't change anything at all about who you are, or what rights you have later. (Wow -- the word verification thingy has "agency" in all caps. Yes. YES.)
Mari Ness
27. MariCats
@bethmitcham -- And see, what bugged me about that was that although I completely agree with you that his having sex with her was a MUCH bigger deal, what is Polly obsessing over and upset about in Greece? Max. Not Renny. And yet Renny was also someone she idolized, also someone she'd spent considerable time with, also someone she considered a friend, who also took complete sexual advantage of her.

Which is why I don't get the obsession with Max combined WITH the non-thinking about Renny. I completely agree with HelenS that Renny could have been just one decision Polly made one time, not necessarily changing anything, but that's clearly not the way Polly is thinking. It also makes her trauma over Max seem even more disportionate, adding to the homophobic feel.

And yes, that's another valid point -- Max was drunk. Not a great excuse, but it meant she wasn't thinking clearly. Renny? Stone cold sober and knew exactly what he was doing.

@HelenS -- Agreed, although I'm guessing that the word verification thingy is just a magical coincidence created by all the happy energy on this site :)
Lila Garrott
28. Rush-That-Speaks
It's been a long time since I've reread this one, but I think that Renny and Max got conflated in Polly's head as Sexual Wound Not To Think About. At the beginning, the first time Zachary tries to kiss her, the flash we get inside her head is referrring to Renny. And the guy she develops a crush on the conference, the older guy who's sort of falling into the place Renny had in her life-- turns out to be married and does not see her sexually and is totally appropriate towards her, and that's what I think snaps her into realizing how much she's conflating the two incidents in her mind. So that she starts to read what Max did as not the end of the world, though still bad, and Renny as *actually really problematic* instead of rescuing-but-a-thing-not-to-think-about. Noticing that each incident was damaging but it's the combination that really broke her.

I also remember the question as being *whether* she will forgive Max, that she has the option not to, but due to Max's health she needs to make the decision now in a way she can be at peace with.

It's a book I'm a bit scared to reread, though, because it was so helpful to me as a baby dyke. Literally the only remotely positive portrayal of lesbians I had encountered in fiction ever, at that time.
29. HelenS
I need to reread this book. I think it makes total sense that she's displacing feelings from one problematic relationship onto another. I've sure as hell done that.

BTW, I hope it was obvious that I meant that of course sexual experience can change you, just as any experience can -- I just meant it didn't change your rights as a person or who you were fundamentally. Not that anyone's said any different. I just re-read my post and it didn't seem quite clear.
30. Off Season Fire Sale
Tangential, but Mari, which Agatha Christie book has a homosexual character? I am curious and would like to read it.
Mari Ness
31. MariCats
@Rush-That-Speaks -- It's not entirely clear what's going on with the older guy at the conference, since of course we're only getting Polly's viewpoint.

But with what Polly is reporting -- the guy certainly seems to be flirting heavily with her, and seems to be under the impression that Polly wouldn't consider his marriage to be an obstacle. Since nothing happens beyond flirting, and the guy is helpful in the boating accident, I'm willing to list this one as one of the less questionably moral things going on. Still, he's flirting with a considerably younger girl, and he's married, and fails to mention that for some time. So.

In regards to conflating -- I don't see it; Polly just doesn't think about Renny much. And I think that's fine -- there's no reason why she has to or should be obsessing about the first guy she's slept with, since it's also obvious that she's not in love with him or worried about what he he thinks about her. It's just that when juxtaposed with her obsession about Max and what Max said and what Max didn't feels off.

Of course, Max, not Renny, is paying for the trip. So there's that.

@Off Season Fire Sale -- The obvious one is in A Murder Is Announced, where a lesbian couple are among the suspects, and in Nemesis, which was just not a good book. Christie also has some other characters here and there that probably are meant to be read gay/lesbian, although they live alone or with parents -- Robin in Mrs. McGinty's Dead; possibly Mr. Satterthwaite, in The Mysterious Mr. Quin and Three Act Tragedy, and so on.

None of these are exactly nuanced or admirable characters, mind you -- with the exception of Satterthwaite they're all meant to be possible murder suspects -- but they're there, which is interesing mostly because Christie by her own admission disliked writing outside of her comfort zone: the British upper middle/upper class large houses/villages/hotels, and later, after she married her second husband, archaelogists, and even there, pretty much stuck to very specific character types willing to murder one another.
Pamela Adams
32. PamAdams
but they're there, the British upper middle/upper class

As of course, more-or-less closeted gays and lesbians were.
33. HelenS
I just reread The Small Rain, and there's an episode when Katherine suddenly realizes they're in a gay bar, and is terrified by the idea ("Pete looked at Katherine and saw her white face, her dark eyes huge and afraid, so he began to talk very quickly..."). Then she doesn't know what Pete means when he says Felix is "sort of swish." Really? This is a New York kid who's been brought up among actors and musicians all her life?
Pamela Adams
34. PamAdams
one of the less questionably moral things going on

But is it? Polly by this time has learned about the pasts of many of her fellow conference attendees- why does it take this 'friendly' guy so long to talk about his family?
Mari Ness
35. MariCats
@HelenS - Yeah. One of the interesting things to consider with L'Engle's depiction of gays is that a) she lived and worked in New York City, b) her husband was a successful, professional actor. One of the reasons her depictions of the gay community sometimes seems off -- I feel she really ought to have had a more accurate outlook. That said, in A Severed Wasp and here she does acknowledge that gays/bisexuals are hardly limited to the acting/Greenwich Village communities, which is a pretty big admission.

@Pam Adams -- Well, as I said, I do have an issue with it -- and I definitely think the guy was willing to sleep with Polly, married or not; she's the one that backs off when she finds out he's married. It's just that against a backdrop of taking sexual advantage of a traumatized teenager, traumatizing the teenager in the first place, buying that teenager's silence and forgiveness with a paid trip to Greece, peer abuse of gay and potentially gay children, abandoning a traumatized and jet lagged 16 year old in Athens, and whatever Zachary's father is doing, it doesn't seem as bad. Bad, yes, just not as bad.
36. Alex Dehnert
> buying that teenager's silence and forgiveness with a paid trip to Greece

I'm pretty sure that Max arranges the trip before the incident (and that there's some angsting after the incident about how Polly wishes she could bail out).

As to the lifejacket thing, were lifejackets common then (especially where Zachary and Polly are going kayaking)? I didn't see any mention of Zachary refusing a lifejacket.
Mari Ness
37. MariCats
@Alex Dehnert -- Sorry for the delayed response; real life has kept me off recently. The impression I got was that the trip was definitely arranged afterwards. But regardless of when, it still has the sense of a payoff.

I'm not admittedly completely sure about Greece, but certainly in Italy at that time the policy was to stick kids in lifejackets whenever small boats were involved regardless of swimming ability-- I remember this because I didn't want to wear one. Lifejackets have been around for awhile and have been a very common part of kayaking for years, and should have been available. Given that Zachary has a heart problem and can barely swim, I think he should have requested a life jacket, and if they weren't available, decided to do something else with Polly.

But I'm a pretty big fan of lifejackets, so...perhaps projecting a little.
38. Amanda Austin
It is okay to forgive. That's what friends do. Lesson learned: despite any opinions others trigger in your HEAD, you should trust your HEART and see the good in people. If you've been hurt, moving on would let the bad guys win, and you shouldn't let them defeat the magic of friendship. Anyone can change when given the chance. We all make mistakes, I know. But even tough guys and bad guys have soft spots and hearts of gold.

Polly's anthem (and her and Zachary's wedding song) for both "A House like a Lotus" and its sequel, "An Acceptable Time"; dedicated to herself and her loved ones and especially in loving memory of Maximiliana Sebastiane Horne: "Listen to your Heart", by DHT (a pop version performed by Roxette) (Yes, I believe Zachary and Polly were made for each other! Zacholly forever!)

Both "A House like a Lotus" and "An Acceptable Time" should be adapted into films and/or shojo anime/manga. Polly = shojo; Max = bishojo; Zachary and other men in Polly's love-life = bishonen.
39. John Cowan
California's statutory-rape laws are completely hardass: no sex with minors, for anyone, ever. In principle, if two under-18s have sex, both of them can be prosecuted (in practice, it's only ever the older male). New York is at the other end of the spectrum: you really need a matrix with different ages from 12 to 18 along the top and side, with check marks and Xs in the box, to figure it out.

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