Book Talk: *Certain Women*, by Madeleine L’Engle

Certain Women: A NovelCertain Women: A Novel
Madeleine L’Engle
HarperOne (1993), Paperback (ISBN 0060652071 / 9780060652074)
Fiction, 368 pages
Source: purchased/personal copy
Reason for reading: Jan./Feb. 2011 selection for Faith and Fiction Roundtable discussion; personal re-read

Opening Lines: “The Portia, a shabbily comfortable fifty-foot boat, was tied up at the dock of a Haida Indian village a day’s sail out of Prince Rupert. Emma Wheaton perched on the side of the bunk in the pilothouse, where her father lay propped up on pillows.

“‘I see Death as somewhat like Goliath,” David Wheaton said, “but I am not allowed even a slingshot as I go to meet him.'”

Book description: Emma Wheaton has interrupted her own successful acting career to attend to her dying father–the legedary stage actor David Wheaton. As the master performer grapples with an obsession over the one great role that has eluded him–that of the biblical King David–Emma confronts both the painful and healing memories of her tumultuous past. The stories of these two Davids and the women in their lives are simultaneously woven together and unraveled in a narrative rich in theatrical tradition and archetypal wisdom.

Comments: I’ve read a lot of Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction, and generally prefer the novels that are targeted to a young-adult audience. Having said that, I think Certain Women may be her strongest work of “adult” fiction. I first read it in the mid-’90s and found it memorable; now, re-reading it for a Faith and Fiction Roundtable discussion, I’ll declare it my favorite of her adult novels as well. There’s an abundance of thematic meat to this novel, but L’Engle does not sacrifice creation of distinctive characters or a compelling storyline in order to mine it; rather, she employs them well in exploring it.

At the age of eighty-seven and facing his imminent death from cancer, renowned stage actor David Wheaton can’t let go of the one role he never had the opportunity to play: his Biblical namesake, King David, in a play to be written by his son-in-law Nik Green and co-starring his actress daughter, Nik’s wife Emma Wheaton. The much-married actor has often dwelled on the similarities between his life and the king’s, and as he gradually brings his remaining family members together to say their goodbyes, his reflections stir memories and conversation about their past, present – and particularly for Emma, their future.

This novel was originally published in 1992 and takes place in the mid-twentieth century, but the Wheaton family is a strikingly modern one – a highly blended one, in particular. Perhaps it’s because different social and moral rules have long seemed to govern the acting world in which the family lives, but there’s little flinching from David’s many marriages, or over the children that several of those marriages produced. The children know each other as siblings and spend a fair amount of time together – although, as in any family, some are closer than others – and a few of the wives and ex-wives have even managed to become friends, as they are involved in raising one another’s children. A few have remained close to their former husband, as well. Due to the early departure of her mother from the scene, daughter Emma grew up closest to her father, and is the first of David’s children to join him and his last wife, doctor Alice, on the houseboat where he is spending the last days of his life.

Those days are spent in reading and reminiscing, frequently returning to the topic of Nik’s aborted King David play and flashing back to how it developed. There’s a lot of quoting from the Old Testament and discussion of the motivations of Biblical characters in these scenes, accompanied with efforts to draw parallels between the two Davids’ stories. In other hands, this could bring the story to one expositional stop after another, but L’Engle makes it work in character for her characters, and it adds depth. On this reading, I was more impressed than I recall being previously by L’Engle’s skill at making conversations between her characters on topics of theology and morality sound natural, and not preachy or sermon-like. One way that she makes it work is by giving her characters different worldviews…and while some of her women (and men) may be “certain,” they’re not inflexible. And in trying to make Old Testament stories meaningful in the context of New Testament beliefs, I think it helps not to be too overly certain in one’s thinking.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote a number of nonfiction works concerning religion and spirituality, and spent much of her life active in the Episcopal Church, making her church home at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She also acted on stage prior to becoming a writer, and was married to a stage and television actor. Certain Women draws on her familiarity with these two seemingly opposed worlds, exploring themes of family, forgiveness, and the meaning of marriage in a Biblically-inspired but thoroughly contemporary story. I’m glad I had this chance re-read it, and pleased that I’m able to appreciate it better this time around.

Rating: 3.75/5
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