Book Review: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

Title: A Wrinkle in Time
Series: First in the Time Quintet, but each book works as standalone
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Pages: 232
Published: 1962
Spoiler-free Synopsis: On a dark and stormy night, three strange visitors whisk away three children for an interplanetary adventure to fight an evil shadow that threatens the universe.
Reason for Beginning: My fifth grade teacher had read it to the class, and I remember it being good. Since it’s apparently a classic of children’s lit and sci-fi, I was eager to revisit it.
Reason for Finishing: It was refreshing to read a story that developed naturally, organically, without undue reliance on simple plot formulae.
Would I reread the story? Sure, but not soon. It’s a fast read with some interesting ideas, and can be easily revisited. Took me about four days of casual reading to finish. Sharply paced. Good for reading in bed, when you are tired but want to fill your mind with some interesting adventure before drifting into dreams.
Would I reread this author? Yes. She’s got good ideas, knows how to communicate them, creates charming characters, and has at least four other books in this loose series that I intend to read soon-ish.
Recommendation: Especially for those interested in children’s novels and young-adult science fiction and fantasy. It’s also probably a great introduction to novel-reading for kids who haven’t been pulled in by the likes of Harry Potter and its copycats. But even for adults this book is good fun and has enough substance to make one think.

Key Thoughts

As an adventure story with dashes of philosophy, A Wrinkle in Time is excellent. L’Engle has real ideas that she wants to impart, and she generally finds the right images and story elements to convey them. The book’s pace never lags nor seems hasty. Just the right amount of character and setting development is given before the story launches into its exciting premise. In her descriptive style, L’Engle mentions only details that are important or helpful, and does not waste her readers’ time with unnecessary diversions. She generally knows what she wants to say, and says it in a focused and entertaining manner.

The characters are strongly defined and likable. Meg Murry represents what most preteen girls probably think of themselves, and her appeal is that of every awkward, good-hearted geek. “I hate being an oddball,” she complains to her mother, and repeatedly calls herself ugly or “repulsive-looking,” even though we are assured by her new friend Calvin O’Keefe that she has “dream-boat” eyes when she takes off her glasses. It was sweet to see the two of them become friends and, at least in Meg’s case, be utterly oblivious to the sparks of innocent first love. If I have one problem with Calvin, a physically gawky but sharply intelligent and perceptive boy, it’s that he seems extremely forward romantically with Meg. Their ages are never stated, but Meg appears to be about thirteen, and thus the older Calvin is about fifteen. Those two years are a huge gap, especially in the perception of kids that age, but Calvin has no qualms taking Meg’s hand without her permission, taking off her glasses to tell her she’s beautiful, or, later, outright kissing her. I suppose that’s just part of his character – that is, being fearlessly forward with people and never masking his feelings – but it feels a little jarring, considering his age. Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace has a similar problem from my view – I like him well enough, but L’Engle states that he is five years old, when his diction and ability to conceive complex ideas is that of an adult (think Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, but not played for comedy). Of course he is supposed to be a special genius, possibly telepathic, but five years still feels too much a stretch– I’d accept him easier if he were closer to eight or nine years old. Still, I like them both, especially Calvin, whose good sense and moral strength make him an interesting character and a good model for young boys.

At times it felt like A Wrinkle in Time utilizes a cosmology borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and simplified for preteens, to the point where all the theological complexity of eldils, unfallen planets, Deep Heaven, and spiritual rebellion is reduced to a war between Light and Darkness. This is not a bad thing; the details and meaning of Lewis’ invented cosmology can be difficult to untangle even for sophisticated readers. Perhaps for this reason his trilogy has remained fairly obscure, even for his fans (Lewisians?). In A Wrinkle in Time young readers are introduced to the idea of every thing in existence being linked to each other naturally by the praise they give God, their Creator. The stars are angels that battle a Dark Thing that spreads like an inky shadow throughout the universe and who seek to inspire mortal creatures to fight it also, whether or not the mortals realize it. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are shown the Dark Thing engulfing Earth and are told that it cuts off a planet’s possibility of communication with other planets and retards intellectual and creative growth. On the alien planet of Camazotz, this Evil is given a personality and a pounding rhythm by which it seduces people to give up independent thought and surrender their wills to its purposes. It thrives on anger, fear, and despair, and the only way to defeat it is through…love.

All this is good, but I wish L’Engle would have developed more the religious implications of her story. Characters, even aliens, quote verses of Scripture with some frequency when seeking answers and help, but they almost never identify the words as from the Bible, or discuss their spiritual meaning and religious context. And take this passage, where Mrs. Whatsit (a star-angel disguised as an old woman) explains the universe-spanning fight against Evil:

‘And we’re not alone, you know, children,’ came Mrs Whatsit, the comforter. ‘All through the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.’
‘“Who have our fighters been?’ Calvin asked.
‘Oh, you must know them, dear,’ Mrs Whatsit said.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, ‘And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
‘“Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. ‘Why of course, Jesus!’
‘Of course!’ Mrs Whatsit said. ‘Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.’
‘“Leonardo da Vinci?’ Calvin suggested tentatively. ‘And Michelangelo?’
‘And Shakespeare,’ Charles Wallace called out, ‘and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!’
Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. ‘And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!’ (100-101)

The qualifications for being a great fighter of the Powers of Darkness seem to be fame, notable accomplishments, and being counter-cultural – yet none of these are intrinsically good traits, morally. L’Engle lists Jesus alongside men who did not live their lives to glorify God, and by implication equates them. Jesus, of course, was no mere moral teacher, but L’Engle neither highlights His uniqueness as the Son of God nor explores what spiritual good, if any, exists in the lives and works of the other men. This is highly disappointing. From a purely literary perspective her point is not developed enough, and from a Christian perspective it is rather alarming.

A Wrinkle in Time is a fun and fascinating little book, a theological science fiction adventure fit for bright children and anyone older. In the following books of the Time Quintet I hope to see how L’Engle develops her cosmology and her endearing family of characters.

Look out for my Day 16 post on the Book Meme, coming before the day is out! David tessers away

Other Reviews
kodama @ Crescent Moon Book Reviews
CoffeeConcepts
Amy Paterson @ Reading Log

Advertisements

Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle”

  1. Ooh! had you never read it before? This is one of the books with which I grew up. Although that passage mentioning Jesus on the same level of Ghandi did trouble me, the psalms that the Stars sung did ease that worry a bit.

    It is pretty amazing that L’Engle wrote this while being a full time housewife and mom during the fifties. And without much knowledge about science. But technically, according to my college physics prof, a Tesseract is a real possibility ….

    I think this is probably the one of L’Engle’s best works. (But “A Wind in the Door” is my favorite. Cherubim!) Her later books get very strange and uncomfortable. Each work deals with love in some way, and so when she gets in to the physically intimate forms of love I kind of checked out.

    Also, I love Calvin! He makes every bookish girl happy.

    1. I’m not sure if I’d actually read it physically myself. Like I said, my fifth grade teacher read it to our class and I remembered flashes of it from then. But still, it was almost like reading it for the first time, since the subtleties and the way it ended were as new to me. It was fun. The psalms sung by the stars are beautiful, as are the songs of the creatures on the planet Uriel.

      I admit I looked up “tesseract” on Wikipedia. It’s complicated!

      The only other one I know I’ve read is Many Waters, and I was either early in high school or just before. It was fascinating, but I remember detecting a few worrying elements, spiritually, as I went on. I’d need a reread to identify them.

      Calvin’s a nice guy, and I admit he shared more elements with my younger self than most boys in fiction do. I’ve always been bookish, and I played lots of basketball when I was his age. But whereas he was the athlete having to hide his bookishness, I was the quiet little scholar trying to nurse a love for basketball on the side. Actually, I still am, though I haven’t been on a court in some time. Last time I played was probably in St Andrews, actually, where I mopped the court with some Brits who challenged me. Brits can’t shoot straight, and they don’t know how to move right. They’ve learned the sport from watching TV! Gah. Anyway, hehe.

  2. I felt that “Wrinkle” was the most cohesive and compelling of her books (though I’m trying very hard not to color your pre-perception of the other books before you read them). It was the first book I read of hers, but there is a weight and a truthfulness (and a beauty of imagery) to it that I miss in the later novels. In all of them, there is a niggling sort of “eeehhhh” in the back of my mind…this only intensifies the more you read her work.

    Yet, at the same time, she was the first author to introduce my 8 year old mind to time travel, alternate worlds, and fluid time, and for that I am forever grateful.

  3. OH ALSO–there was an absolutely horrific movie adaptation that you should never see. What they did to Mrs. Whatsit…I have no words.

    1. I shall duly pretend it does not exist, then.

      Thanks for the thoughts! I did a teensy bit of research on L’Engle, and Wikipedia says that she was a “liberal Episcopalian” who believed in universal salvation — that is, no such thing as Hell, everyone eventually gets saved no matter if they rejected Christ in their lifetime. If true, that’s deeply heretical and un-Christian. But keeping in mind that the ‘Pedia is still not to be considered authoritative, I’m trying to only judge her by what I can tell from her books themselves.

      Even where there is dangerous error, there may also be good things by the grace of God. Had I my own children, I would definitely read the book to them, but maybe talk a little about how Jesus is different from other famous “great men.”

  4. I agree there is a healthy dose of CS Lewis style philosophy and Christian ethos backbone to the story — that’s not a bad thing at all, but the comparison is a good one. When I answered that question about favorite childhood books though, the Narnia books didn’t really come to mind, they never quite clicked with me.

  5. Although L’Engle gets a little “earthy” in her theology, the affect it had on me was very positive. it proved to me a mysterious, and awesome God who was much bigger than I could ever imagine, and yet was interested in the smallest of creatures including me.

    1. That is an aspect she brings out well, true. I have an especial gratitude towards stories that show Good being more interesting than Evil, which I think is the proper way of things.

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s