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.