Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle

Certain Women 
I read this book for this first time when I was in library school, probably in the spring or summer of 2007–I remember that I found it in a used bookstore that’s sadly no longer open in Durham. I enjoyed it when I read it, but I had forgotten a lot about it, so I decided to reread it a few weeks ago. I think it’s one of Madeleine L’Engle’s more complicated books–it’s certainly one of her later books, and I think one of the few “adult” books she wrote after she became a well-known children’s author.

Before I go too far, I don’t think I’ve mentioned on this blog that I consider Madeleine L’Engle my favorite author. I have lots of favorites, but she’s one who’s books continue to appeal to me both because I like her stories and because I appreciate her outlook on life. Like my mother (who introduced me to L’Engle), I’ve found more to criticize in her books as I’ve gotten older, but overall, I still think her books are fabulous and capture the way I feel about many things. So while I do have a few critical comments, more of this book works for me than it might for other readers.

A quick overview of this one is difficult, but it basically follows actress Emma Wheaton as she spends time with her very famous actor father, David Wheaton, while he is dying. They are in the Pacific Northwest, on a boat, with David’s current wife, Alice, and Alice’s brother Ben, who runs the boat. David spends much of the time reviewing his life and regrets, particularly those regrets related to his marriages (8 in all), his children, and never having gotten to play King David in a play that Emma’s playwright husband, Nik, was trying to write. There is a great deal of flashback, and Emma has to come to terms with her own past traumas and mistakes while she’s trying to help her father in his dying and let go of him, too.

Those familiar with L’Engle’s work may be surprised the she focuses so much on a character with so many marriages–her Austin books are sometimes criticized for presenting a family that’s too perfect–but as in her other books, she treats almost all of her characters with compassion. David Wheaton acknowledges that he’s messed up many times, and many people have gotten hurt because of his choices, but he maintains friendships with some of his past wives, contact with almost all of his children, and overall is a sympathetic character. Most of his children get along with each other, and several of the wives are friends as well, which is where I can see L’Engle looking at the world with rose-colored glasses. While many former spouses can remain or eventually become friends, and step-parents and step-siblings often do become friends, the “one big happy family” ideal seems to come a little too easily.

My other criticism is actually the use of the Biblical story of David. I generally like when L’Engle uses Biblical themes–Many Waters, a retelling of Noah and the ark, is my all-time favorite–but it gets a little tiresome here. Part of it is a natural part of David Wheaton obsessing with the story and Nik’s play in his reminiscing, and also of Emma and Nik forming their relationship largely around work on the play, but sometimes it just gets to be a little too much.

With that said, I like the book. I like the theme of less than perfect families still loving each other, even if it seems a little too easy here. I like the focus on dying well and using the time of dying to reflect on life and say good-bye, along with the rejection of medicalizing death. Emma is a likeable, but not perfect protagonist–her own problems come out in pieces as the book unfolds–but I like the choice she makes at the end of the story. Additionally, the world of the New York theater scene in the 1940’s is wonderfully vivid, and I’m sure drawn largely from L’Engle’s own time as an actor (to support her writing!) in that period.

I looked up some reviews from when the book came out (in 1992), and the main criticisms were L’Engle’s rosy outlook and that she had sprinkled trite philosophical truisms throughout the book. I’ve already mentioned the former, and I think if you can get past that, then you can get past the truisms, too. To me, a more hopeful and optimistic outlook is sometimes what we need, and I think the smatterings of philosophy rang true in the world of the characters.

If you can get a hold of the book (Durham Library does have 2 copies, which surprised me a bit), and if you like L’Engle’s other books, I would recommend this one. Just remember that this is definitely not a kid’s book–it’s written for adults.

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