Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle

Word Lily review

Certain Women: A Novel by Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992), 351 pages

Told mainly from the perspective of up-and-coming stage actress Emma Wheaton, Certain Women is primarily a family drama. (And what a complicated family it is!) World War II bisects the narrative. Actor David Wheaton, Emma’s father, is dying, and his mind is filled with what ifs, focusing around his ex-wives and children, but viewed through the lens of something else he left undone, a play about the David of the Old Testament.

I really loved L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time — that whole series really — when I read them in my preteen years, but in the last couple years I’ve heard a few naysayers, so I was eager to experience L’Engle again and see if I still appreciated her writing. I wasn’t disappointed.

The story feels very modern, to the extent that I sometimes forgot it’s set in an earlier time.

I loved the interplay between the Baptist and Episcopal grandparents and ideas. She portrayed the back-and-forth (but ultimately unified) positions well.

The writing is splendid.

One complaint: I grew tired of what felt like harping on the connections and/or differences between the two stories, though. On the one hand, it makes sense, since Dave Wheaton is so obsessed with the biblical David, but the comparisons still felt a bit forced on me. Since the story’s told from Emma’s perspective, it might have been nicer to just let it flow.

Now, getting back to the writing (examples):

‘I listen to my characters better than I listen to anybody else. That’s not good.’ They had reached their building and he let go of Emma’s hand to reach for his key.

‘No, it’s not good, but I think maybe it’s true of all artists. When I’m working on a role I listen to my character. And I listen better than I listen to myself. Or to you.’

~page 260, Certain Women

“Maybe we have to sin, to know ourselves human, faulty, and flawed, before there is any possibility of greatness.”

~page 326, Certain Women

“I don’t have answers to the questions, at least not yet, but I have some good questions.”

~page 333, Certain Women

Rating: 4.5 stars

[I read this for the Faith ‘n’ Fiction Round Table; I posted Saturday about a theme I discovered in its pages, Serve the Gift.]

About the author
Madeleine L’Engle is the author of many acclaimed and popular works for adults and children, including the Newbery-winning A Wrinkle in Time and her autobiography, The Crosswicks Journal.

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6 responses to “Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle

  1. Good review Hannah! I am glad you brought that up about the grandparents, that was interesting.

  2. I read L’Engle’s adult books because I was obsessed with her younger books. I did like this one, but I don’t remember it very well. I am not so sure I would like it now that I am older, but when I was younger I did…

  3. The story felt very modern to me as well, and I also liked the grandparents. I thought that one of the novel’s strengths was the conversations characters had about complex philosophical topics that sounded in character, and the grandparents are a great example of that.

    • Yes! Too often, it seems, when such deep topics come up, it pulls me out of the characters; it starts to sound like the author talking instead, on a soapbox or something. It was well done in this book, though, for which I’m thankful.

  4. Pingback: Words from my reading | Word Lily

  5. I too loved A Wrinkle in Time and those books growing up and have wondered how L’Engle would fare for me now. I’ll have to add this one to my list and see!

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