Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (review)

Do you remember the Murry children from A Wrinkle in Time?  The creation of Madeleine L'Engle, Meg and Charles Wallace are descendants of the Pevensie siblings from The Chronicles of Narnia but ancestors of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

I read this as a kid but failed to connect with it. I picked it up again when my book club at work turned to the fantasy genre.  Unfortunately, my adult reaction was no different than my preteen self. 

This is the cover I remember
My entire objection to the book is tied up in the main character, Meg. Great pains are taken to emphasis that Meg is the black sheep of her family, incompetent at school, full of unbridled angst, and mousy to boot.

Told from Meg's viewpoint, the story is full of outbursts, tearful declarations, and constant frustrations. This goes far beyond what we would expect from a gangly teenager girl.  Meg isn't just made to feel unattractive - she has an unattractive personality.

What irks me about Meg is that L'Engle left her without any gifts. She is thoroughly unlikeable and untalented.  Daughter of two scientists, sister of a child prodigy, and friend to a math whiz * (reader correction below), Meg doesn't have anything to bring to the table.

I nearly threw the book at the end when Meg saves her brother with her love.  Yes, the girl who fails her classes, wanders around clumsily, and constantly complains saves the day with her love.

I know, I know, it was the 60s.  It was unusual to have a female main character in a sci-fi book.  But still, sigh.  It reinforces that girls are only tagalongs with domestic gifts in adventure stories.

Despite my objections, I'm glad this book exists.  It's very alternative to something like Narnia or LOTR, even though it similarly mixes religion, fantasy, and science freely.  In fact, that's precisely why it was on the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenge Books during the 1990s.  That's an automatic plus in my book.

Depictions of women aside, the master theme of the book is the dangers of conformity.  It shows that a world that has removed the individual for simplicity's sake is one full of people easy to control.  

Favorite Quotes

"Just because we don't understand doesn't mean that the explanation doesn't exist."

"You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you."

Do you remember reading this book?  What did you think? 


  1. Friend to a math whiz? Er, read that passage again. Calvin's the one who's not so good at math and asks for help. *Meg* is the math whiz. L'Engle makes it clear that she's not much good at *school* (yet -- she gets to PhD level later), but ferociously intelligent. Yes, it would be nice if she got to use her intelligence more directly in the plot, but I really don't see it as downplayed at all.

  2. Thanks for the memory jolt, you're correct. I must have recalled the scene where they're doing math homework together, but remembered an earlier passage describing how Meg could arrive at the answer but never show her work and consequently received poor marks.

    I don't think Meg is dumb by any means. L'Engle also makes it clear that her brain operates differently than others, something that becomes an advantage later on in the series.

    But for this book in particular, her intelligence is not a gift or an advantage. It would be different if she had to solve a puzzle, complete an equation, or chant times tables to save Charles Wallace. I could dig that. But just her love? When you look at how the other characters are empowered (and yes, sometimes trapped) by their intelligence, it stands out as a negative in my mind.

    Thank you for your comment!!!

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  4. It’s funny to me that you say "Told from Meg's viewpoint, the story is full of outbursts, tearful declarations, and constant frustrations. This goes far beyond what we would expect from a gangly teenager girl." Because that is exactly what I would expect from a gangly teenage girl... or any teenage girl. The teenage years are hard and teenagers are often full of frustrating emotions that they don't understand. What I see in Meg is a very real and relatable character. And if you were to read more closely you would realize that Meg is actually something of a genius. Which is part of her problem... one that I've seen personally in children who’s intelligence is off the charts. Meg is incredibly smart, far beyond her years, but at the same time is stuck in the body and emotion level of a teenager... which leads to great frustration. I don’t see Meg’s ability to save her brother through her love as an affront to womanhood. On the contrary I see it not only as very touching but also as emphasizing Meg’s great strength and ability beyond other people who are only smart. Meg is really smart but her intelligence alone is not what makes her who she is. She has the capacity to love greatly, which isn’t something that everyone (especially the super intelligent) has. Her love coupled with her intelligence is an unstoppable force.

    1. Hi Lacy - thanks for stopping in! I think you give a lovely, redemptive reading of Meg's character. While I like the thought that "her love coupled with her intelligence is an unstoppable force," that's not the case for this book. It is only her love that saves the day. The intelligence part is referred to but not display in the first book (though more evident in later ones).

      Love is an important quality in both genders, but in this book and for this character, it is the only thing that gives her power. I'm not comfortable with that, or for any female character.

      I think of Hermoine as a good counterpoint - a character who is caring and smart, yet isn't prone to emotional outbursts.