Shelf Awareness Book Talk: *Listening for Madeleine* by Leonard Marcus

Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices
Leonard S. Marcus (Goodreads)
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (November 2012), hardcover (ISBN 0374298971 / 9780374298975)
Nonfiction: biographical essays, 384 pages

A version of this discussion was published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (December 4, 2012). Shelf Awareness provided an Advance Readers Copy of the book and payment for the review.

Opening lines:“She was born in New York City on November 29, 1918, the only child of Charles Wadsworth Camp and Madeleine Hall Barnett Camp. Her parents, whom she ruefully described as ‘Olympian,’ grew up in privileged circumstances–Charles at Hilton, a rambling old house in Crosswicks, New Jersey; Madeleine in Jacksonville, Florida, where her family owned the largest bank.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Madeleine L’Engle is best known to the world as the author of A Wrinkle in Time, the enduring milestone work of fantasy fiction that has enthralled millions of readers for the past fifty years. But to those who knew her well, L’Engle was much more: a larger-than-life persona, an inspiring mentor, a strong-willed matriarch, a spiritual guide, and a rare friend. The renowned literary historian and biographer Leonard S. Marcus reveals L’Engle in all her complexity through a series of incisive interviews with the people who knew her most intimately. Vivid reminiscences of family, colleagues, and friends create a kaleidoscope of keen insights and snapshot moments that help readers to understand the many sides of this singularly fascinating woman.

Comments: The first author that I wanted to know about as a person was Louisa May Alcott. The second was Madeleine L’Engle. In addition to almost all of her fiction, I’ve read some of her nonfiction, including her four memoirs, collectively known as the Crosswicks Journals; I’ve visited her old stomping grounds at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City; and I thought I knew a good amount about her. But I didn’t know she came from a prominent Florida banking family. I didn’t know she’d lost a son. I knew she was very active in the Episcopal Church, but wasn’t aware that she actually preached on occasion, and didn’t know about her involvement with an evangelical, fundamentalist church group. And I didn’t realize that several members of her family disagreed with her portrayals of them in her memoirs.

In the Crosswicks Journals, as well as in her other nonfiction writing and active public speaking, Madeleine L’Engle had many opportunities to tell her own story. In Listening for Madeleine, Leonard Marcus shapes the reflections of a wide range of L’Engle’s relatives, friends, and colleagues into an unconventional biography–more of an oral history–of the award-winning novelist through the perspectives of those who knew and were influenced by her.

Marcus organizes the 50 interviews presented in the book according to the context in which the party knew L’Engle: writer, mentor, friend, family member, or fan. While certain of her characteristics seem to have been evident to nearly all of them–her work ethic, her keen intellect and curiosity, her faith and spirituality–other facets of her personality were revealed, or experienced, less uniformly. For example, while many considered her giving, generous, and warm, some perceived this as a cultivated manner rather than a natural attribute–part of L’Engle’s persona, the character she presented as herself. Some of those closest to her have challenged that presentation, noting that L’Engle was a storyteller and writer of fiction, and that extended to aspects of her own story.

If that’s the case, then L’Engle’s own memoirs may not be genuinely “autobiographical”–or, at any rate, they may not be completely, factually accurate. With that said, Listening for Madeleine isn’t a genuine, conventionally researched biography, either. Leonard Marcus has assembled a fascinating, impressionistic portrait of this complex and influential woman. It might best be considered a companion to the Crosswicks Journals, giving readers the opportunity to see Madeleine L’Engle from a variety of angles.

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