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Madeleine L'Engle - Time Quartet 
20th-Jun-2006 01:52 pm
Hello! gramarye1971 here with my first post -- actually, a cross-post from my regular journal, where I've been doing my best to post book reviews every Tuesday since the middle of 2004.

Having recently re-read the following four books, I thought I'd review the entire set at once. ^_^

Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet

A Wrinkle in Time
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, devoted to highlighting the worst of bad fiction writing, takes its name from the author who first penned the opening line, 'It was a dark and stormy night'. Yet even if that particular opening line is clichéd, it doesn't mean that the rest of the story will necessarily follow suit. In A Wrinkle in Time, it merely sets the overall scene: on a dark and stormy night, a strange visitor shows up at the back door of the Murry family's old house, interrupting Meg Murry, her little brother Charles Wallace, and their mother during a late-night snack. Blown in by the storm, the stranger -- who introduces herself as Mrs Whatsit -- says that she'll only be staying for a moment, and then casually remarks to Meg's mother, '...by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.' That puzzling comment means very little to Meg and Charles Wallace, but their mother's startled and frightened reaction shows that it clearly has some meaning for her. And as Meg, Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin O'Keefe soon find out, a tesseract is a wrinkle in time, one which will send them on a journey through different worlds in search of Meg's physicist father...and which will bring them face to face with a terrifying force of evil.

A Wrinkle in Time mixes the 'hard' sci-fi of time-travel and fifth dimensions with a more high-flying fantasy adventure style, and throws in a fair amount of religious and spiritual context as well. But at its heart, the book is very much a young adult's coming-of-age story. Meg Murry is a classically awkward teenage girl: always struggling with her schoolwork and her teachers, horribly self-conscious of her glasses and braces, and convinced that she is completely dumb and unattractive. She's also suffering from abandonment issues, fully aware that small-town gossip attributes her father's disappearance to marital infidelity. Small wonder that she often comes across as petulant, prickly and defiant, even in situations where being so only makes things worse.

Fortunately, A Wrinkle in Time doesn't try to resolve all of these issues for her. She's still much the same Meg that she was at the start, but both she and the reader have had to explore different depths to her personality. And as the opening book to the Time Quartet, A Wrinkle in Time sets the foundations for further adventures with the members of the Murry family across time and space, and introduces a number of themes that will appear in more of L'Engle's books and series along the way.

A Wind in the Door

A Wind in the Door picks up a short time down the road from where A Wrinkle in Time ended. Meg Murry's father is home and safe and back to doodling complicated equations on the tablecloth. Meg is slowly trying to get over the worst of her awkward teenage self-consciousness, and Charles Wallace has finally started attending the local school -- though not without incident, judging by the number of times he has come home bruised and bleeding from attacks by bullies. Meg is particularly worried for him, especially when he comes home one day and announces that he has seen a group of dragons in the field near their house. Yet Meg's worries are only just beginning. Her little brother is dangerously ill, and it will take all of her courage and her love for him to protect him from an evil that seeks to extinguish all the matter and energy in the universe.

A Wind in the Door is the second book of the Time Quartet, and I would be lying if I didn't mention that the book does have its clunky bits. Unfortunately, the clunkiest bits seem to be the ones that are supposed to explain the driving force of the plot. L'Engle's peculiar (I can't think of any other word for it) pseudo-microbiology involving farandolae and mitochondritis confused the hell out of me when I was ten, and over a decade later I still can't make much sense of it. Fortunately, it's possible to suspend disbelief where the clunky plot bits are concerned, because the most powerful passages of the book are all about the deeper plot point: fighting darkness within ourselves as well as within other people. The Christian themes in the book are present but not overpowering, and treated with a fairly deft touch. Even with the clunky bits, it's still a solid book.

One of the more interesting characters in A Wind in the Door is Mr Jenkins, the school principal who briefly appeared in A Wrinkle in Time to give Meg a lecture on her belligerent attitude and generally make her feel even more awkward and unattractive than before. Saying too much more about him would spoil some of the best parts of the book, but I did want to add that I was impressed by L'Engle's treatment of his character. It isn't every young adult fiction writer who can work with what might seem like an unlikeable, one-off adult character -- particularly a school principal type, so often the 'bad guy' of young adult fiction -- and make him sympathetic, believeable and crucial to the plot. Definite bonus points there, for showing that coming-of-age stories are applicable to people of just about any age, even to (and perhaps especially for) those who are well past childhood. *sits on further spoilers*

Many Waters

The title of this book comes from the Song of Solomon, specifically the verse which begins 'Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it'. And L'Engle has deliberately picked an appropriate verse for the title, because the vast majority of the action in this book takes place far back in the Biblical past, in the time just before the flood. Sandy and Dennys, the twin brothers of Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, make the mistake of disturbing an experiment in progress in their mother's lab. In the ensuing explosion, the twins find themselves in the middle of a desert on what they first think is an alien planet. When a young man named Japheth helps to save them from dying of heat stroke, the boys soon end up being cared for in the tents of Japheth's extended family -- which includes his grandfather Lamech and his father Noah.

Like A Wrinkle in Time, Many Waters is a coming-of-age story, particularly emphasised when the twins both start to fall in love with Yalith, one of Noah's daughters. The element of otherworldly evil is also present, this time in the form of the nephilim -- fallen angels who mate with human women and who can take the shapes of animals. Sandy and Dennys are used to being the practical, sensible, normal members of the Murry family, the contrast to their theoretical scientist parents and their often strange older and younger siblings. They adapt remarkably well to their new situation, even if it takes them a while to piece together the facts about where they've ended up.

I wasn't as fond of Many Waters as I was of the first two books, because the characterisations of the Biblical figures (and the characters in the book who aren't mentioned in the original Noah-and-the-ark story) seemed a little too cut-and-dried to me -- in the sense that the 'good' characters can be spotted from a mile away, and for the most part the 'evil' characters practically have LOOK I AM AN EVIL CHARACTER tattooed across their foreheads. Unicorns show up more than once as a plot device, and there's a not-at-all subtle connection between goodness and sexual virginity that made me a little uncomfortable at times in its presentation. But Many Waters is nonetheless an interesting and rather creative take on the story of Noah and the accuracy of the story as is told in the Bible, and it's good to see Sandy and Dennys in a story of their own here. The Song of Solomon verse before the 'many waters' verse is also quite appropriate as a summary of the story: 'Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death'. (SoS 8:6)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

The first three books of the Time Quartet feature the older Murry children in the main roles, so it makes a good deal of sense for the fourth and last book in the Quartet to star a now-teenaged Charles Wallace. Some ten years after the events of A Wind in the Door, the extended Murry family is trying to sit down to a normal Thanksgiving dinner in a world that seems anything but normal. Mad-dog Branzillo, the dictator of the South American country of Vespugia (said to be located in what was once called Patagonia, i.e. where Chile and Argentina are now), has threatened nuclear war and looks to be on the point of carrying through with his threat. Meg is worried about her husband Calvin -- the same Calvin O'Keefe from A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door -- who has gone overseas for a science conference and now will probably not be able to make it home to her and their unborn child. And on top of it all, Meg's antisocial mother-in-law Mrs O'Keefe is acting even more peculiar than usual. She mumbles an old rhyming prayer of protection that she calls 'Patrick's Rune' and insists that Charles Wallace learn it, too, claiming that only he will be able to prevent the impending war. And when Charles Wallace goes for a walk outside to think things over and recites the Rune aloud, a unicorn named Gaudior appears...and carries Charles on a journey back and then forward through time to change certain small but nonetheless pivotal situations in the past, and battle the forces of evil (the echthroi of earlier books) who intend to see him fail.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet takes L'Engle's time-travel plot and gives it a slightly different twist: all of Charles Wallace's destinations in the past are very near to his own home. Furthermore, in order to interact with the past he must 'enter' the minds of different people in different times, seeing the world through their eyes and learning how seemingly insignificant actions and people can have a definite effect on future times. He isn't alone in his quest -- he can communicate with his sister Meg through 'kything', a strong telepathic link -- but because he does not precisely know what he is supposed to do to avert future disaster, the quest tests his will and faith as he searches for the way to set things right.

As the last book of the Time Quartet, A Swiftly Tilting Planet works with many of the same themes and plot concepts that characterised the first three books in the series. Charles Wallace doesn't have Meg's awkwardness or Sandy and Dennys' 'normal'-ness as a handicap, but he's always aware the stakes here are extremely high for him and for the world. L'Engle is able to keep the reader constantly guessing and wondering how all of the past events are interconnected, how a Welsh settler's family life can possibly affect the mindset of a South American dictator, but A Swiftly Tilting Planet pulls all of the loose threads together for a satisfying if sobering conclusion. It seems the right way to end the series, and it's good to see an older Charles Wallace who has lost some of the otherworldliness from his childhood and has grown into a complex, sensitive character in his own right (without serving as the plot device or catalyst yet again).
20th-Jun-2006 06:09 pm (UTC)
My Grade 8 teacher read A Wrinkle in Time to the class. I got hooked and ended up puchasing the series from Scholastic - although it was only three books, not four. I don't remember Many Waters, so I think I'm going to have to find a copy.

After reading this review, I want to read the series again, because I remember how much I enjoyed it. :)
20th-Jun-2006 06:46 pm (UTC)
I'm a little surprised they wouldn't include Many Waters in there, because it's definitely about the Murry family, but then again it's also something of a one-off story from the other three books. At any rate, it's nice to come back and re-read books after not having read them for several years -- you pick up on so much more, with that kind of distance. ^_^
20th-Jun-2006 08:23 pm (UTC)
I always felt like Many Waters was weirdly separate, too. I liked it, but it left the least impression of the four books--the other three are so extremely strange, and pretty cosmic in scope, and Many Waters was this biblical time travel story.

Besides, A Wind in the Door taught me the word "fewmets", which I have never been able to forget as a result.
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