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A Wrinkle in the Heart: Thoughts on A Wrinkle in Time
kermie
catvalente
Sooooo. I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time the other night because it was so hot I couldn't sleep, and justbeast  had started reading it to me earlier that night. (At my request, not his, he's not a big fan of it and tried to pawn me off on Drywater or whatever, but I was like: I have never read this children's classic! Make with the tesseracts!)

As often happens when I read a book that I mostly found good but had some big issues with, I want to talk to someone about it. But this is not just a classic, it is a Beloved Classic, and while we can give Narnia and the Problem of Susan the stinkeye and admit that LOTR is kind of hinky on the all kinds of scores, some books seem to be Beyond Criticism. You don't go taking your red pen to The Phantom Tollbooth. You just don't. It's not nice. And everyone loved this book as a child. The shock that went up on my Twitter feed when I said it was my first read was intense. My friends get this soft, dreamy look on their faces when I mention Charles Wallace.

And yet, why didn't I read it? I obviously own it. (The whole series, though I've only read the first one so far.) I've obviously heard of it and been vouched for its quality. Though when I think about it I seem to remember other people saying: yeah, I loved it, but you should not read it. You wouldn't like it. You would have Issues. And so I didn't. But now I have. And I want to talk about it! But you can't talk about the stuff we loved as a kid in a critical way. (Not that everyone hasn't gotten Cool Points from shitting all over LOTR, my beloved adolescent books, in the last several years.) And I didn't not like it. Some of it just bothered me, as an adult reader in the 2010s, rather than a child in the sixties or seventies, for whom I suspect this was as revelatory as a book could get. So, I am going to talk about A Wrinkle in Time, and I beg you not to get too angry or comment with the popular refrain: yeah that's true but I loved it anyway. I know you did. Everyone did. You should keep loving it, for it is loveable. And we all want an Aunt Beast. (And a mother like Mrs. Murry.)

It really is highly readable--I peeled through in one night--and full of endearing characters. I can see why this book matters to people so much--firstly, best family ever. I mean, it's like the opposite of Harry Potter (or I suppose it's really the Weasleys, down to the red hair) and other orphan narratives where the protagonist clearly Does Not Belong. Meg is so utterly a product of her family, she belongs there, and is loved for who she is. Bookishness and geekiness are good and encouraged Murry traits. Mom is an awesome scientist, and so is Dad. Sporty brothers are viewed with slight suspicion. It's the family we all want to be in, and few of us are.

But...despite Mom being a scientist, she stays home and takes care of the kids while Dad has adventures. She is perfect and beautiful, (uncomfortably, Calvin's mother is expicitly not beautiful, and this is kind of a shorthand for her not being as Good as a Murry--though good heavens, a woman who has had seven children and lost all her teeth might have reason to be cranky) but domestic, cooking beneficently for her family while doing her experiments. She is not employed by the government; she is not even allowed to be involved in the rescue of her husband for no defined reason. (I mean, really, she knows him better than any of her kids, all of whom were tiny when he disappeared. Why can't she go? Dad can be a Player.) I know in 1962 this must have been super-advanced, female-role wise, but now it feels discomfiting. I recognize that I react incredibly poorly to the "woman who stays at home being awesome and carrying on while her husband is away" trope for obvious personal reasons (I basically won't even read The Time Traveler's Wife. This is a thing which triggers me, and I don't use that word lightly.) It's especially squirmy when considered alongside the issue of Meg.

I suspect everyone loves Meg. Identifies with her, because she is an outcast in school, and even in her own family feels different, all the while she is assured she isn't.  (She is though, as we'll see. She's the only one, essentially, without superpowers.) We love that type--especially when they only think they are not smart, while actually being pretty great. (I can't recite the periodic table, yo.) But here's the thing: everyone in this book is special but Meg. Even Calvin, who really is just some rando Charles Wallace ran into, even Calvin has a special gift and is destined to be wonderful, destined to be part of the family and obviously Meg's future husband. Calvin's gift is communication with the alien, Charles Wallace is clearly Jesus or something (having looked up the wiki it would seem we never actually find out why Charles is special, nor what happens to him, which is MADDENING), so incredibly marvelous and perfect that he must be protected at all costs. Meg's gift is...being difficult and kind of pissy. And loving her (male) brother. All the men are endowed and stalwart and gifted with particular talents. Meg's talent is an especially female one--loving her male relatives and...well, I got very tired of how many times she "wailed" "cried" or "stamped her foot." This is very infantilizing language, removing her feeling from anger or passion into the realm of tantrum. Charles Wallace is always described in adult terms, though he is five. Meg in childish terms though she is at least 14 (in high school).

Again, I'm sure back in the day having a girl as the lead at all was amazing--but Meg is not the hero of her own story. She is a Girl Having Adventures, yes, but those adventures are all about other people, she is never the point or the mover, and everyone around her is a Male of Import. More import than Meg, always, more power, more agency, more options. It was painful to me to see her so infantilized and sidelined, down to essentially fainting for a whole chapter because she's not as good at traveling as the men--even Calvin! Who has no reason to be naturally awesome at anything the Murrys are! Calvin bothered me, as you can see. He gets very little development for how central he is to the plot, and is introduced so suddenly and is so great at being a Murry he makes Strider look like a subtle debut.

In structural terms, the book felt very rushed at the end, and I found myself gaping at (spoilers) IT's revelation as a giant brain. Really? That's IT? It's become so cliche now to have a giant floating brain that I can't see it as scary or even interesting--plus the word IT makes me think of King's novel, and amps my expectations. I felt a whiff of anti-communist preaching in Camazotz, and wanted, really, a whole lot more to happen in those sequences. We get pages of Charles falling under the influence, but very little else. I loved Aunt Beast of course, and wanted more there too. Every single piece of the book was so interesting, but I never got enough of any of it, or enough specificity. Maybe that's elsewhere in the series, explaining what is going on with everything.

And the God stuff...eek. Narnia was subtle, comparatively. Angels and Jesus and God, God, God.

But for all that it is incredibly compelling--like Babylon 5 it seems to be more than the sum of its parts. The gender stuff is as ever hard for me to let go of (even the Mrs. W's are genderless in their true forms, not really women) even if they and the structural irritations are perhaps products of their time. It was lovely to see a portal science fiction tale, the tropes of portal fantasies transferred over to science fiction. Some of the passages, most particularly Aunt Beast and the Mrs W bits, were just charming. And I am still quite seriously considering naming my incoming boy-kitty (at some point soonish from darling Betsy) Charles Wallace. (Arrrg, how could MLE leave us not knowing what and where he is? I swear here and now never to do that ever.)

And yet. And yet.

Some childhood novels one can read as an adult and find wonder there. And some are hard to read as one might have when one could just black out the bits that bothered. I feel like I have missed a beautiful and moon-colored train where all the other children can shriek in delight and trade tales of tessering, leaving me to stand on the platform mumbling "But..."

PS Feel free to spoil future books for me in the comments--spoilers don't really ruin books for me, and I'm undecided on whether to read them. Also, I said I looked up the wiki. ;)

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Psst.

I missed it too.

You do not not ride alone.

Understandable reservations

Rob Thornton

2011-07-15 07:35 pm (UTC)

I think it is fine and good to take stock of the classics and balance their strengths against their limitations. If we didn't constantly re-evaluate the past, we would have never re-discovered Bach and Shakespeare.

If A Wrinkle in Time fades away, I'm sure that we will find worthy replacements now and in the future.

Are you planning on reading the rest of the books in the series? We wouldn't want to spoil them for you.

Re: Spoiler for future books?

catvalente

2011-07-15 07:38 pm (UTC)

Feel free. Spoilers don't ruin books for me.

Dude. You are not the only one who Meg drove nuts. I read these as a child. I loved them. BUT. Meg drove me nuts. I read for Charles Wallace. And I hated that we never found out why he was truly special. You are not alone.

As a result, as much as I enjoyed the books as a kid, I didn't re-read them as compulsively as I re-read my Edgar Rice Burroughs (and boy do you want gender fail there, yo! LOL) because Dejah Thoris may have been a stereotypical lady, but damn it, she'd knife you if you got uppity.

So, no, don't feel bad for having issues with it. I find it hard to read a lot of kid lit now as an adult. It's why I love Fairyland so fucking much. So go to.

What else do you want to talk about with the book? *gets coffee*

Yeah, I mean, if you say a character is ZOMGSPESHUL every five words, you have to fire that gun eventually.


When I was 10 years old (in 1968), that disembodied brain had me so horrified me that my teacher, who was reading the book aloud to our class chapter by chapter every day after lunch, let me leave the room while she was reading that part. (I had read ahead, you see, so I knew what was coming.)

Afterward, she talked to me very seriously about it and pointed out that if I really wanted to be a vet (my ambition at the time), I was going to have to dissect things and look at innards, including brains. So I threw away that goal, because I was so grossed out.

All of which is to say that yes, the age at which and the time in history when someone reads this book can make a lot of difference.

(My mother was also a scientist, but she wasn't nearly as perfect as Mrs. Murray. She was a neurotic mess who eventually developed a full-blown case of bipolar disorder, poor woman. So Mrs. Murray was a fantasy mom to me for completely different reasons.)


And having grown up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I didn't find it even alarming.

The Suck Fairy visited that one

joshagentry

2011-07-15 07:44 pm (UTC)

I tried re-reading this one last year. The Suck Fairy had visited.

I had those incredibly nostalgic, warm fuzzy memories of experiencing it as a kid. I actually heard it as a serial on the radio as a kid. I remember sitting on my mother's lap in our little kitchen in the trailer and listening. I was immensely disappointed when I discovered I couldn't read it now. Too heavy handed.

I'm not sure where he got this from, but my brother says that when, after many years, you re-visit a book that you loved and discover it now sucks, then between then and now the Suck Fairy has visited and cursed the book.


If you are going to continue the series, I'd be interested to see how your reading of Mrs. Murry in opposition to Mrs. O'Keefe develops once you read A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The tropes of these women are still problematic in ASTP -- and the treatment of mothers and motherhood is even worse in the books about the second generation of the Murry/O'Keefe families! -- but at least L'Engle seems to develop more awareness of what she's doing with mothers.

On Meg's imperfections, and the way they set her against the idealized male characters: Meg was the first heroine I met in books who had the qualities of not being perfect. Meg is grumpy. Meg is whiny, and knows it for a flaw. Meg hates school. I see how these things set Meg apart from the boys around her, the angelically brilliant Charles Wallace and the angelically noble Calvin. Yes, the gender dynamics are troubling, and I see them now that you've shown them to me. But if I had to choose, I would far, far rather make Charles and Calvin less perfect and keep Meg as she is.

I don't mind Meg being not perfect. It's that everyone else IS, while also having power that is not about Love, the ultimate feminine trait, most especially Love of Men. She can be flawed and still not be the most useless one in the room. She's like the Kari Byron of the Murrys.

Despite the book being in my house throught my childhood and is probably still at my parents house I have never read it.

As far as the periodic table goes I used to have about 80 elements memorized. Now I just listen to Tom Lehrer instead.

I think Meg didn't bother me because she was such a Mary Sue (not a term I knew at the time). I was 14 and moody and didn't have any magic powers, so that made her the relatable center of the story. If she'd been OMGSPECIAL too, it would have been distancing.

So it made it like a really good funhouse ride for a 14-year-old girl (pre-High-Def-3D etc...) because I could basically ignore what characterization there was for her & just Be In her.

How was she a Mary Sue if she was flawed and didn't have powers?

By the end of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, you will have your answers as to where Charles Wallace is. I'll say this, I've read these books a lot (I actually am Christian, so the God stuff doesn't bother me), including very recently, and I always thought the primary reason Charles Wallace was so important to protect in Book One is because he was full of self enough to be the most vulnerable to IT.

The brain itself wasn't that scary to me, but I think it wasn't as tired when the book first came out.

...but MLE herself said she didn't know what happened to CW, and that she'd write about it if it ever came to her.

My own $0.11...

Owned the trilogy, read them as a child, loved them. I certainly see where you are coming from with Meg. I guess I always treated her more as the catalyst for the others- even if she didn't have super-powers of her own, the fact the she was willing to go into the same areas as Charles and Calvin made her ever braver by comparison.

The Brain comment is a little unfair- the book came out years before Stephen King, and if it's a cliche now, isn't that like saying The Exorcist isn't a scary movie because we've seen dozens of movies and parodies using the same concept?

I would recommend reading the other two books (Calvin's mother plays an unexpected role in the third book). I thought the third book (A Swiftly Tilting Planet) was the best of the bunch, and hope you're able to read the others.

I said it wasn't fair--that too many others have done it since, and I can't read it the same way.

But the girl being just a catalyst for the men? That's old school, and it doesn't make anything better.

I really think it's just one of those things that doesn't age well. My 2nd grade teacher read it to us in 1982 and it was the most awesome thing ever, but I've never reread it since and after reading your post probably won't.

I agree completely with you.

In 1982, the book was awesome and wonderful and magical. Now, thirty years later, its flaws are more obvious.

Some things don't age well.

This was a book I loved dearly, but have been unable to go back and read it as an adult, because of my fear that the suck fairy visited while I wasn't looking.


While I haven't read any of the books in quite a long time, I remember liking the second and third more: A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I feel like I liked those better because there was something much more explicitly difficult and melancholy about them, whereas in some way I felt like A Wrinkle in Time was supposed to have a more pat happy ending sort of kids' story thing going on, and yet..and yet. The second and third felt older, and seemed to be more about changing, rather than 'and our whole point here is to put things back the way they were'. Maybe it was just that at the time I was reading them, the protagonist age of the second and third were hitting the ideal 'slightly older than the reader' mark which makes it easier to identify with.

This is a book I still re-read every couple of years, usually when life has kicked me in the metaphorical balls. It's comforting for some of the reasons you describe -- the sense of family, of home, of how well Meg fits into that dynamic of her clan of not-exactly-normal people. I adored her as a child (and I'm 29 so I first read this in the early 90s) because I felt I was exactly like her. As I've grown up I've realized some of its faults, but I still love the book's charms and nostalgia, and I find it comforting. The best of the series is probably A Swiftly Tilting Planet; it's got some interesting ideas regarding fate and a lot of frustratingly amazing stuff with Charles Wallace, too.

By the way there is a Disney movie version of Wrinkle, but RUN AWAYYYYY. Never have I wanted to kick a television so badly.

Trivia: L'Engle was asked if the Wrinkle in Time movie had "met your expectations," and said "Yes. I expected it to be bad, and it was."

I too have never read it. I tried listening to the audiobook a while ago and couldn't get past the aliens singing Jesus' praise. Maybe I'll try the physical book as I can skip such things easier. = ]

PS-And speaking of audiobooks, I have to say you narrated The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland... wonderfully and if you ever feel the inclination to read other books, I for one would buy it based on that fact alone.

Aw, thank you!

And yeah, the Jesus stuff is really bald and out there, as opposed to mildly metaphorized in Narnia. I have trouble with explicitly Christian books (as opposed to other faiths) because they treat it as obviously the Facts of the Universe, not as part of the fiction, and frankly I live in a world where people are always trying to convince me of those Facts. It's the ultimate insider art, and it always feels awkward and didactic to me. Because we're traveling in space! But Jesus is here so you should be aware it's not entirely fiction?

I did not read this as a kid either. I read it as an adult and I remember being annoyed by Meg's temper tantrums, too, and wanting more out of the ending.

Maybe if I had read it when I was younger I would have had the love for it that you describe people having, but as it is, it's not for me.

Than you for putting into words the things I couldn't quite put my finger on about Meg -- I've owned the whole series for ages and this book always seemed skewed for me. I did really enjoy the second one, A Wind In The Door -- it spurred my fascination with biology and genetics -- but again Meg is relegated to the role of "loving the male characters." In the second book, Charles Wallace becomes deathly ill, his mitochonrdia and oxygen levels are involved, and somehow his life is tied to everyone else's, and there are all sorts of powerful male characters... Meg's role is strong, but still... she saves the world with love. Like, literally, she wraps her arms around the universe (Charles Wallace, reminiscent of Fantastic Voyage and loves everything.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet has Meg in a role that was kind of iffy for me. She's pregnant and her doctor brother wants her to stay in bed. But she telepathically travels with Charles Wallace on his time-traveling adventures in which he leaps into people's bodies, and she does save his life a few times, but again, she always seems to be The Lover Of All The Men. I dunno.

I loved the series and in many ways I identified w/Meg as I felt I was the 'normal/average' one in my family. I love the concepts and ideas in A Wind in the Door the most. I have some issues w/how some things are presented in A Swiftly Tilting Planet(Native American presentation), which when it was written was some of the most enlightened reps in pop ya fiction(1978). I still use some of the concepts presented in Door as very sensible, for if we and our universe are not interdependent, then it doesn't make sense to me. Just babbling :) I also listened to the radio play and that was well done, especially the Happy Medium! I don't know why, but YA fiction has had more of an impact on me than a lot of other things. Joan Aiken, L'Engle, Diane Duane, hmmm, female writers with strong female leads, maybe that is the theme,

I feel like I have missed a beautiful and moon-colored train where all the other children can shriek in delight and trade tales of tessering, leaving me to stand on the platform mumbling "But..."

I get this with a lot of children's classics, as well as some adult genre stuff that wasn't published in the UK (Bordertown, for instance, feels very much like it belongs to all the people who enjoyed it in the past, but idk if that's just because I'm going through a big phase of I Do Not Belong Anywhere). This is a wonderful, achy way of describing that feeling.

I feel like I have missed a beautiful and moon-colored train where all the other children can shriek in delight and trade tales of tessering, leaving me to stand on the platform mumbling "But..."

I feel this way about a lot of things, Wrinkle of Time among them, because I've never read it either.

I'd leave the other books alone. I read this young enough and loved it so much that I was able to handwave the gender issues that bothered me even on a first reading, even as a child circa the late 60s/early 70s. The sequels, especially the last ones, enraged me. As far as I recall, Meg ends up as a housewife.

Oh, of course she does. *facepalm*

I loved those books but also largely agree with you. It's very much a product of its time and while it isn't quite as good with female characters as Andre Norton's fiction of the early 60s, but is also well better than anything else I've seen from that era.

I noticed the religion as a kid and rereading it as an adult, but I also found it relatively non-problematic, as opposed to attempting Lewis' Narnia series and his Space Trilogy, the first of which had religious stuff that deeply horrified me when I attempted to reread it as an adult, and the second of which horrified me as a teen. At least from my own PoV, I found it deeply Christian, but also not remotely vile or annoying about it.

Once again, it's a book that is now old enough to be a bit strange, which in part is simply the wonderful fact that our own world is very different in many positive ways from the world of 1962.

At least in Narnia it's under cloak of metaphor, and I can ignore it.

I read it in that sweet spot age-wise. Or what should've been. I actually found myself more compelled by the one where her twin brothers go hang out with Noah.

I fail as a geek girl.

Though it's possible it was too religious for me. I had real trouble reading books invoking Christianity that weren't, like, the Bible. Because I kept wondering if it was bad that I was reading them and what exactly is the author trying to convince me of and is this evil? (Felt that way for sure about OSC's Seventh Son books.)

I liked the Noah one, too. I still want a wee tiny woolly mammoth.

I was another kid obsessed with WiT and MLE's work; it got me through a rough childhood. I think what I loved most about the book was it treated me -- the kid reader -- with respect. She didn't translate Mrs. Which's quotes; she expected me to get the concept of tessering. But I agree with your criticisms: it doesn't age well. MLE was also a devout Episcopalian and wrote a lot of theological musings, so I see her fiction as really being about her exploring her faith. I can't read it these days, but there was a time when it was important to me.

Oh, and stay away from The Small Rain and A House Like a Lotus. Homophobia fail like whoa. As an incredibly repressed teenage lesbian, I really didn't need my first literary encounter with dykes to be alcoholic predators.

She does translate them though?

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