The other day, as a tack on to my post about Anna and the French Kiss, I mentioned L’Engle’s boarding school romance And Both Were Young. I thought I might add in two other L’Engle YA titles that are similarly good. Unlike her more famous A Wrinkle in Time, these books are more for young teens, because they deal with romance and growing up. First, let me just say that Madeleine L’Engle is by far one of my favorite authors ever. I appreciate nearly everything I’ve ever read by her, and that’s a great deal of her work. When I was in 7th grade, I had to give a speech about heroes and I chose to talk about why she was my hero. I lost the speech a long time ago, but I suspect that many of the things I said would still be true. Her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, shaped a lot of my ideas about religion and morality.
In Camilla, L’Engle wrote a classic coming of age story. Camilla Dickenson is a wealthy Manhattanite teenager in the 1950’s. She has led a sheltered life, being babied by her mother. As the novel begins, she has become aware of how troubled her mother is and how her parents’ marriage is in danger. Things spiral downward from there. A conflict with her best friend and a budding romance with her friend’s brother only makes things worse. As the story goes on, Camilla seems to be falling apart, but in the end, she finds strength. It’s hard to say now what exactly I loved about this book when I was younger. In some ways, it comes off pretty melodramatically. However, Camilla comes to a real understanding of her parents as individuals and herself as in charge of her own life, two things that are so simple yet so groundbreaking in adolescence.
A House Like a Lotus is sort of a sequel to A Wrinkle in Time. Polly, the protagonist, is the oldest child of Meg and Calvin. However, this book has no science fiction elements; it’s a straightforward coming of age novel. Polly begins the story in Athens, where she has traveled on her own, thanks to the generosity of a family friend, a woman named Max. Slowly, as Polly travels around Greece, then acts as an intern in Cyprus, all while being romanced by a rich young man, she tells the story of how she grew close to Max then broke with her. This is a complex and layered story. There are a lot of elements, including a sex scene that, at the time, drew criticism (though now seems tame compared to much of what’s out there in YA books). The treatment of gay issues (did I mention there’s a LOT going on in this book?) is a little outmoded. The book is decidedly pro-gay, but the way she writes about the issues feels old-fashioned to today’s much less homophobic world. Overall, the theme of the story is redemption and forgiveness, something that is echoed in everyone’s actions, from Polly to Max to Polly’s love interests, to the school girls and teachers who torment Polly and down to the war torn Cypriot setting of Polly’s internship.
By the way, A House Like a Lotus seems to have been out of print for awhile, but it’s listed as being re-issued early next year, seemingly as part of the same re-issue that gave us the spiffy new cover to And Both Were Young. Two of the prequels to Lotus, including the mystery The Arm of the Starfish, have already been recently re-issued. The first is also worth a read, though the following book, Dragons in the Waters, is one of my least favorites by her, so I recommend skipping that one for all but the most die hard L’Engle fans.