A House Like a Lotus – Madeleine L’Engle

This is probably my favourite Madeleine L’Engle novel.  It’s a close race between this one and A Severed Wasp, but which protagonist do you think a YA reader would most identify with: social misfit adolescent girl on the cusp, or world-class septuagenarian pianist looking back on her life and career? I guess Wasp is technically an “adult” novel, though it seems that L’Engle herself was impatient with such categories.

A House Like A Lotus’s protagonist is Polly O’Keefe, eldest daughter of Meg and Calvin from A Wrinkle in Time. The book differs from others in the series, in that it contains neither time travel nor international espionage plots. Yet this book and another one called Cathy’s Little Sister by Catherine Woolley (which I will review someday if I can find a copy to re-read) were probably responsible for infecting me with early-age wanderlust. L’Engle’s book starts out in an airport and ends in Cyprus via Greece.  As the novel opens, Polly finds herself in Athens, unexpectedly alone, drinking sweet sludgy coffee at an outdoor café and trying to make sense of the past several months.

In previous novels, Polly is a carrot-topped wunderkind who speaks multiple languages, brims with confidence, hobnobs with priests and sailors, and spells her name “Poly” (short for Polyhymnia). In AHLAL, she is sixteen, socially awkward, and far too bright – an outsider in the daily gauntlet known as high school. (Polly’s experience at her rural South Carolina school is beautifully summed up in the following phrase: “And then I get through the day, and it’s bearable because I like learning things.”)

Polly meets a woman named Max, a wealthy artist who becomes her close friend and mentor, encourages her to write and audition for plays, draws her out of her shell. With Max, Polly can talk about anthropology and science and theatre and travel. With Max, Polly is free to be smart. They begin to spend inordinate amounts of time together, and Max’s stimulating company makes up for Polly’s lack of school friends. Max convinces Polly that while she doesn’t fit in with the crowd at high school, she is both “friend material” and beautiful, and that people will be drawn to her all her life.

It is also Max who wrangles her a three-week job at a literacy conference in Cyprus, where Polly forms intense friendships with other members of the staff, who come from Africa, Asia, and Oceania. En route, she receives a whirlwind Before Sunrise-like tour of Athens escorted by the ubiquitous Zachary Grey (Vicky Austin’s pale paramour in earlier L’Engle books). As a kid growing up in rural British Columbia, Polly’s adventures gave me hope, fed my hunger to experience the glamorous, elegant, painful, exhilarating world and people that existed beyond the small town I lived in.

[Bonus rant with spoilers]

Here is the book’s greatest drawback: L’Engle’s strange and conflicted treatment of homosexuality. Because Max (whose gender L’Engle somewhat awkwardly conceals for the first few chapters of the novel, much of which unfolds in flashbacks) has an Ursula, a neurosurgeon who has been her partner for over thirty years.  As Polly discusses their relationship with her parents, trying to come to terms with it, they adopt a U.S. Army-esque “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: Meg and Calvin suspect, but don’t know if Max and Ursula are lovers, and they don’t care to know. They view Max and Ursula as fine human beings regardless of (despite?) their sexuality, yet refuse to acknowledge their relationship.

Then we come to the book’s climax, a confusing and ambiguous scene in which Max, drunk on whiskey, makes a sexual pass at Polly, causing Polly to (1) go into traumatic shock, (2) sleep with the medical resident with whom she’s been having chaste, casual dates, and (3) break off all relations with Max and Ursula.  There’s lots of discussion about how Polly had placed Max on a pedestal and is unable to forgive her when she showed her clay feet.  It’s just unclear whether the clay feet = getting drunk and pursuing Polly, or being sexually attracted to her and other women in the first place.

It seems like L’Engle, a Christian whose vision of her faith emphasizes humanity, diverse and flawed, had not yet reconciled how she felt about queer people when writing the book.  In her novel The Small Rain, first published in 1945, Katherine is supposedly shocked and repulsed by the sight of gay people in a seedy Village bar, despite having grown up in the theatre and having been surrounded by artists her entire life.  In A Live Coal in the Sea (the sequel to Camilla), published in 1996, Mac’s father has sex with another man, an act which is portrayed as almost akin to rape, even though we have no evidence that it was not consensual.  But then another, sympathetic gay character is shown helping Mac and his family “heal” from the experience.

On one hand, L’Engle’s 1970s “liberal” stance leaves much to be desired:

“Of course lesbianism exists, and has since the beginning of history, and we have not always been compassionate. I thought it was now agreed that consenting adults were not to be persecuted, particularly if they keep their private lives private. We human beings are all in the enterprise of life together, and the journey isn’t easy for any of us.”

Um… are we talking about homosexuality here, or leprosy?  On the other hand, it’s 2010 and the “not persecuting consenting adults” message still hasn’t sunk in with many people in the United States — or the rest of the world.  Which makes me realize that L’Engle, in many ways, was ahead of her time, and perhaps ahead of ours.

Reading age: 12 and up (because of the “adult” themes), but I believe that kids can and should read books that are too old for them.

Rating: A- (the minus is for the bizarre, dated portrayal of same-sex relationships)

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3 thoughts on “A House Like a Lotus – Madeleine L’Engle

  1. As an adult mother of a teen daughter I was very annoyed at how the book portrayed the sexual intercourse between a minor aged hysterical girl and a med student who in my opinion took advantage of Polly’s physical and emotional hurt.
    Statutory rape. Call the cops. The guy even quizzed her about her periods to reassure himself she would turn up pregnant. And he is planning on being a doctor? Yikes!
    I love L’Engles books. This one scene really disturbed me.

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