Over at Tor.Com, Mari Ness has been running a series of essays I cannot stay away from -- The Madeline L'Engle Reread.
If you're like me, A Wrinkle in Time was one of your SF Gateway books. I know it wasn't my first SF book -- that was Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel -- but it was among the first SF books I read.
All the SF books at my school library had little rocket stickers pasted to their spines, even though, as I soon discovered, very few of them had actual rockets in them -- A Wrinkle in Time, for instance, did not. But I liked it anyway, enough that I went on to read every L'Engle book in the school and then the public library, even though most of the others had no little rockets on their spines. I also went on, through my adolescence and early twenties, to read most of the L'Engle I could find, and most of the books she would put out, though hardly any of them were actual SF, and though the quality, frankly (as Ness comments in this reread) is very mixed.
Even Wrinkle in Time, as I find in on a reread, is not the book I thought it was at 13. (Here is Liz Henry with a good reading on that.)
Still, despite her flaws -- which are many: I am rereading A Severed Wasp right now and keep literally choking at the smug pronouncements that L'Engle keeps putting in Mimi Oppenheimer's mouth about how Jews need to realize that it wasn't only Jews who were harmed in the Holocaust and that "other people" were hurt by Nazis too -- oddly, it's only the other people we hear and are told to be concerned about: no damaged Jew ever appears on stage. Hmm! Damaged Nazis, damaged Germans, damaged classical French musicians by the score, mais oui! But damaged or dead Jews? No, only a noisy living Jew who says Christ! every few lines and Oy vey! every other.
Not to mention the utter classicism: A casual comment by what is either the narrator (L'Engle) or the main character (who we're supposed to take as a decent human being) that it is "as surpising" to find true talent in a ten year old mixed race street child as it is to find that her mother is a gourmet cook. And then endless snide comments about bisexualism and people who smoke dope and people who listen to "pop" music and all the horrific crime in New York -- this despite the fact that our narrator has had affairs, two we're told about, that our narrator drinks -- we see her drink, often -- and that our narrator likes various sorts of music. But hers is "good" music!
Not to mention the religion crap. Oh L'Engle NO! It's not just that she goes on and on -- as she became more and more prone to -- about the Jesus-y stuff. No, there is also the anti-Haiti bits. Early on in the book, she and the Davidson children, as well as another priest, come upon "evidence" of "Black Magic" in the cathedral, done by those immigrants from Haiti. And we get a rant about how worship of Satan is real and very powerful, and the evils of worshiping that sort of "magic" religion. Dean Davidson, who (we are told) has "ancestors" from the islands "knows" about this sort of thing and keeps a close guard on the Cathedral, keeping it out.
See, it's not racism. Because Dean Davidson says it's not, that's why.
All this makes it sound as though I do not like L'Engle. Or this book. Neither of which is exactly true. There are bits of this book I like a lot. First, I like that Katherine Vigneras is not nice. Not even close to it. She's the meanest women in modern fiction who is meant to be an admirable character I have ever read, I believe. Also, the character of Emily is very well done, and the relationship between Emily and Katherine I enjoy every time I read the book. Plus the book totally passes the Bechdel test -- tons of women characters, who talk to one another all the time about things that matter in their lives. Plus these are women who have not made men the center of their lives -- although, to be fair, Katherine at least claims she made Justin, her piano teacher, the center of her life at one point. But frankly, from what she herself tells us, this is not at all the case. Her music was always the center of her life, as well as being the center of his life.
This is another reason I like the book, and a reason I keep coming back to it, despite all its flaws, and its flaws are MANY: it is an accurate portrait of an artist. Katherine Forrester Vigneras (she takes her husband's name, OF COURSE SHE DOES) is obsessive about her music. It is really all she thinks about. Everything translates through the music. People come over -- she wants them to leave so she can work on the music. She's at a party -- is there going to be music? Music is played -- is it like the music she's working on, or music she heard once, or music that was part of a program she worked on once? She's visiting the cathedral -- what are the acoustics like, how will the music sound here?
This is, in fact, what it is like to be an artist. The art is all there is. It's not that nothing else exists. You do (sometimes) get married, have relationships and friends and go to parties; but all that is secondary (third, or fourth, or fifth, even) to the art. L'Engle catches that perfectly in this novel.
Even without rockets.