22 January 2011

Thoughts on "Certain Women"

I just finished Certain Women by Madeleine L'Engle. In it, a young actress, Emma Wheaton cares for her dying father David--also an actor, and a great one--who's sort of obsessed with a role that he never got to play, that of the biblical king David. Their family saga is interspersed with and often paralleled to that of the king, in turn told as the actors and playwright discuss how each scene should be written.

It sounds like a cheesy TV movie waiting to be made, but I hope I can assure you that it is not. Still, it is also not many things that people tend to look for in books these days.

Ms. L'Engle's prose is very understated, and her pace is gentle; some might say slow, but I'm not one of them. I mean, you can't really expect some gripping thriller when most of the action takes place at dinner tables at the end of the day and on an old man's boat in the lonely Pacific Northwest (which, now that I've read about it, I'd like to visit). Instead, I think the author's own background in the theater shows in the way she lets the story and characters reveal themselves through dialogue and reflection.

This may be a failing in that it sometimes sounds as if the character is only talking so that the author can get everything out there--again, like in plays. One of my favorite scenes, in which Emma and several of her half-siblings (both Davids had many wives) gather around the piano and discuss an absent brother, sounds like this at certain points.

But I'd also like to believe that in those days, (the 1930s-60s), people actually talked to one another like that. In the end, I also feel that I know more about the characters than they actually said, which I always think is a good thing. And even if some characters don't get more than a few lines (and most don't get much physical description) I also like the feeling that I know who each character is--considering the number of wives and children each David had, this is something. Her characters are human, flawed and in some ways desperate, and if they are flat in some ways, the author actually admits it at one point.

I will say that the buildup to the one violent scene in the book wasn't subtle enough; from the moment Ms. L'Engle first dropped a hint that it was going to happen, I knew who was going to do what to whom. Was it intentional? It does make me wonder how the victim walked so blindly into it, but perhaps like me, who once gave my phone number to not one but two creepy strangers who asked, this person wanted to assume the best about the villain.

I will also say that the way the scene was written was cheesy and has probably been used to write such scenes a thousand times before. I hope it doesn't make the crime any less brutal.

Because Ms. L'Engle goes back and forth between Emma's story and the Bible story of King David, one might assume that she's being preachy. It's easy to assume this given how Ms. L'Engle weaves her faith into nearly everything she's written (or at least everything of hers I've read*), but I think making this assumption is wrong. Throughout the book, Ms. L'Engle shows just how open to interpretation a Bible story can be. It's definitely worth noting that many of the discussions about the king, his wives, the prophets, and God's likely intentions are held by an Episcopalian, a Baptist, their somewhere-in-between-granddaughter, an admitted adulterer who's slacked off religious practice, and the agnostic playwright. All their talk made me want to crack open Samuel I and II again to see what I might make of it for myself.

All that said, I will concede that it may not be interesting to people who aren't interested in the Bible, much less religion. It might also take some getting used to if you're not already accustomed to the way Ms. L'Engle writes about faith.

Can I tell you, though, that David's is probably one of the most gripping in that whole book? Once you get past the giant-slaying, there's still all the war, polygamy, singing, drama, prophecies, more war, and, of course, death. It's practically a soap opera--and it would probably contend for the title "All My Children."**

Anyway, I enjoyed the book. If you find it, I hope you'll at least read it.

*I'll admit here that I'm a L'Engle fan; here's what I've read: the whole Wrinkle in Time series, including the saling-pusa fifth book, An Acceptable Time; The Arm of the Starfish; A Ring of Endless Light; Walking on Water (non-fiction); Penguins and Golden Calves (also non-fiction); The Joys of Love; and Certain Woman. It's also kind of fun to catch Ms. L'Engle recycling; there's a conversation about Chekhov in The Joys of Love that appears again in Certain Women. I think she only reused it, though, because she assumed that Joys was never going to be published; it only came out after her death.

**Fun fact: While in the theater, Ms. L'Engle met the love of her life, actor Hugh Franklin, who would later star in "All My Children."

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