Finding Role Models in Madeleine L’Engle’s A House Like a Lotus

A House Like a Lotus bears many of the traits common to Madeleine L’Engle’s work: family members swap kids; a deeply eccentric adult mentors a deeply precocious child; ESP exists when convenient; half of the characters are the youngest/most eccentric members of old, old families; precocious children are abused at school; extraordinarily intelligent parents insist that precocious children stay in schools where they don’t learn anything because of the nebulous concept of “social intelligence” which in the L’Engle-verse seems to mean “learning to put up with idiots”; and, of course, international travel. But, other than that instance of convenient ESP, and one fictional terminal illness, Lotus is pretty straight realism.

Or, if you’ll humor me, pretty queer realism.

Polly O’Keefe, daughter of Meg Murry O’Keefe and Calvin O’Keefe, and central character of L’Engle’s previous books The Arm of the Starfish and Dragons in the Waters, is trapped in finding it hard to adjust to life as a teen in South Carolina. Luckily, her middle-aged next-door neighbor turns out to be the regal scion of a very old, very rich Southern family, who first befriends her, then sends her to an all-expense paid internship with an artists’ conference where her favorite author is a guest. The book mainly follows Polly as she tries to process a traumatic experience, and sort through her own emotional life, while being romanced by a vapid playboy named Zachary Grey (a character who also appears in L’Engle’s Austin Family books). But none of that mattered much to me, because I just wanted to grow up to be that ridiculous neighbor, who was also the first openly queer character I ever encountered in a book. And reader, she was fantastic.

Reading this book at age 11, I was probably supposed to identify most with awkward and gangly 16-year-old Polly—or at least look at her like a big sister. But it wasn’t her I cared about. The only character who mattered to me was Polly’s absurdly over-the-top neighbor, whose name was, I shit you not, Maximiliana Sebastiane Horne. (Her beloved, long-deceased sister is named, and I am still not shitting you, Minerva Allaire.) Obviously she’s called Max, or sometimes Metaxa, after “a strong Greek liqueur.”

I shouldn’t have to explain why I blew right past Polly and identified with Max as hard as I could.

This book contorts itself around the question of queerness like a snake trying to mate with itself. Max is bisexual, but is presented in a way that goes to pains to explain why she’s bi. Her father was an abusive lush, who got drunk one night and tried to rape her sister M.A., which has led to Max pinballing between hard-drinking and promiscuity and serious, sober monogamy. When we meet her, she’s in the thirtieth year of a committed relationship with a woman named Ursula, but L’Engle has to make sure that we understand that she was with a man first, and had a daughter with that man. The death of her daughter led to the breakup of the marriage and launched Max into a series of erratic affairs with at least a few genders before she met Ursula. Max is brash and confident, traveling the world painting, and accruing a spectacular private art collection, and generally acting much more like a rich playboy than a late-middle-age wealthy woman. Basically, she’s become the son her father wanted. Ursula embodies a different queer stereotype: short, a bit round, “handsome” instead of “pretty,” short clipped hair, hyper-competent, steady. Plus, we’re in the L’Engle-verse, so obviously she’s also one of the best neurosurgeons in the world.) But even though Max and Urs are obviously exceptional people, and a great couple, Max seems to think she needs to talk Polly through her history to explain it, and Ursula seems to think she owes Polly an explanation for her attraction to Max, and refers to herself as a woman who’s had to make it in a man’s profession.

This couple is contrasted with the O’Keefes: Meg Murry O’Keefe and her husband Calvin, who are miles away from their teen selves in A Wrinkle in Time: Cal is now a world-renowned scientist who tends to be pretty standoffish and stern with the kids, and Meg has reacted against her own mother’s brilliant science career by leaving academia to have seven children, but has somehow also grown into the exact kind of perfect, graceful woman that young Meg would have hated. We also learn, through Max, that Meg has begun to feel stifled by her family—after dedicating her twenties and thirties to raising kids, she might be eager to return to the mathematics career she left behind.

Polly’s favorite brother, Charles, is living in Boston with Meg’s brother Dennys while Dennys’ daughter Kate stays with them in South Carolina. Kate is beautiful and willowy and immediately fits in at Polly’s school, going so far as to mock her cousin at the dinner table for being a dork. Polly, meanwhile, goes from being mostly unnoticed to being harassed by her classmates for her friendship with Max. And this is where the book veers in a direction that has made a lot of people condemn it over the last few years. Max and Polly talk about sex, because they talk about everything. Max clearly sees Polly as a replacement for the daughter she lost, Polly sees Max as an awesome non-Mom role model, and seemingly Meg sees her as a way to have one less kid to worry about. So at a certain point Polly and Max talk about sex, and Max tells Polly she’s straight. At another point Polly and her parents talk about sex, and she reassures them that she’s straight, and insists that Max and Ursula should keep their business to themselves. Polly is caring for Max one night when she drinks too much, and maybe kinda sorta makes a pass at her. Now this is obviously bad in many directions, but even as a kid I read this as a dumb drunken mistake. She wants her life and her youth back. She wants to be the hot, healthy, fabulous Maximiliana who go out at night and come home with whomever she wanted. But the second she realizes where she is and what she’s doing she sobers up and apologizes.

The immediate aftermath of the night with Max is that, as Polly’s walking home, a couple of boys from her school try to pick her up, and then start berating her and yelling homophobic slurs at her when she refuses to get in their car. Then, when her kinda-sorta, much-older boyfriend Renny comes and gets her, he comforts her, which turns into sex, which she allows.

There’s a lot here, and here is where as much I wanted to identify with Max, I had to admit that I was a lot closer to Polly in both age and class. First, as I already knew all too well, stepping outside of “normal” can be terrifying in school—I was already familiar with the power move of a popular girl approaching and pretending to be friendly before she asks if you’re a lesbian. I also suspected that boys’ already outsized reactions to anything “gay” might also apply to finding out about me—the fact that I didn’t really see myself as a girl, exactly, and that whatever I was, I certainly wasn’t The Thing People Referred To As Straight—seeing Polly navigate this situation as it turned violent gave me a preview of how things were going to be as we all got older, stronger, and more hormonal.

Not fun, but useful.

And that brings us to the second part of this encounter. Polly, distraught over Max’s drunken betrayal, and freaked out by the confrontation with the high school boys, decides in the moment to lose her virginity with a man she doesn’t know that well. She does this seemingly out of a need for physical comfort and reassurance, and also, I think, to prove to herself that she’s straight.

This has bothered me since I read it. As an 11-year-old, deciding to sleep with someone seemed like the single biggest and most important decision a person could make, and I felt betrayed that Polly chose to do that on a whim. Where was the love, the commitment? Hell, where was the condom?

But more than that it upset me that Polly made this momentous choice to prove that she wasn’t what Max was.

I wanted to be what Max was.

Was it really so terrible that you’d risk pregnancy with a guy you don’t know just to get away from it? Was there some part of her that was trying to prove those high school boys wrong? So she could walk into school on Monday knowing that she’d had sex with a handsome older guy—a guy even her snotty cousin thought was cute—so there would be a part of her those kids could never touch?

What did that have to do with love? Max and Urs had been together for thirty years, despite not even being allowed to get married. They loved and supported each other’s work, they lived apart for months but always came back together, they were romantic and fun. They weren’t proving themselves to people who didn’t matter. They weren’t bound together by children, or resentful of giving up promising careers. They didn’t judge the straight couples around them for being shitty allies. Max didn’t even press Polly for her forgiveness. She knew she’d hurt the girl, and she relayed her apology through Polly’s uncle, paid for Polly’s trip to Greece and Cyprus, and waited for Polly to process enough to talk to her again. Even though she was dying, she recognized that Polly needed to take her time.

Since I don’t really do gender, I just always identified with whichever character I liked most. When Polly O’Keefe proved disappointing, I surrendered to my love of Max: someone who was not supposed to be a role model, who was bitchy and snotty, often drunk, but fabulous. She was committed to life with her deadpan, no-bullshit partner, and in a book full of colorful, globetrotting artists, and several ludicrously rich playboys, it was Max and Urs who represented #relationshipgoals. Max was dying, which came up to the edge of the trope I would eventually learn was called “tragic queer”—but the illness had nothing to do with her sexuality, it could have happened to anyone. Her career as an artist, and Ursula’s as a WORLD-RENOWNED NEUROSURGEON (fuckin’ L’Engle) were unaffected by homophobia, or at least, they didn’t allow anyone to see the effects, they just kept on being themselves. And L’Engle made Max so defiantly herself, and created a character who built her life around art, loved where she loved, and remained fundamentally open to life despite pain and illness. She is also immediately and genuinely remorseful when she causes Polly pain, knows how to apologize, and (unlike many of the other adults in the book) knows to give Polly time and space to process and forgive. I don’t think L’Engle wrote Max Horne to be an inspiration, but finding her when I was twelve gave me the example of a life of queerness and art that I desperately needed.

Now Leah Schnelbach just needs to work on that “scion of an incredibly wealthy family” thing! Come talk to them about Pride on Twitter!

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