Since falling in love with Meg Murray and A Wrinkle in Time at around age twelve, I have been a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle — but really, surprisingly, had not read any of her other books, and certainly none of the books she wrote for adults. Certain Women (1992) is very much an adult novel, but it shares the innocence and quiet strength of Wrinkle, and its heroine Emma is a not-too-distant cousin of Meg. Is it a good book? It is a book with much goodness in it, but it is not an entirely successful book. But then, what is success? It might not be wholly consistent or wholly believable, but I believed in its characters enough to tear up at the end.
The conceit of Certain Women is that famous American actor David Wheaton is a twentieth century analogue of King David, with nine wives and eleven children more or less corresponding to the biblical David’s. Now, this attempt to draw historical parallels in fiction can work extremely well. A much-beloved sprawling epic from my teen years, Susan Howatch’s Penmarric, tells the fiery multigenerational tale of the Castallacks of Penmar as thinly disguised avatars of the Plantagenets. The book made my brother and me lifelong devotees of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her brood. Because fiction can humanize in a way that histories and biographies too often cannot, Penmarric made the Plantagenets live and breathe; it skillfully transposed the Middle Ages to a late nineteenth/early twentieth century framework, creating plausible comparable scenarios across time.
L’Engle does not manage to do this. The parallels are, for one thing, apparent to — and remarked on ad infinitum by — the characters, which really dampens their effectiveness. It becomes less an imaginative enriching of the past through relatable characters than a tedious — and too frequently unbelievable — connecting of the dots. Moreover, nobody in real life spends as much conversational energy as Certain Women‘s characters do rehashing their tortuous family milestones. To have David and his various ex-wives and progeny tirelessly retread the succession of the actor’s multiple marriages in an effort to provide perspective to the whys and wherefores of their family tree against the backdrop of the patriach’s dying days and last bedside visits stretches credulity. Plus, for much of the book, the conversations between the characters only establish relationships.
But to carp on this would be to ignore the joys of the book. And there are many. For one, there is the welcome simplicity and grace of L’Engle’s style. This struck me early on, when I came upon a sentence describing how Emma was bringing dinner to the family in a steaming bowl. And the sentence stuck in my head and I wondered why. And then it came to me: because L’Engle very rarely uses an adjective. Her language is plain and unadorned and clear; she’s not Hemingway — this isn’t used to a stylistic end. It’s just neat, unobtrusive storytelling, with sufficient detail provided to paint the picture. It is a nice authorial voice, never calling attention to itself, but always stolidly, solidly backing up the characters and the actions. Making the revelations of the latter part of the book, as the family’s skeletons are displayed, quite stark and shocking.
Another pervasive pleasure is that this is a book first and foremost about the strength and resilience of women. I was at first quite put off by the fact that all these fantastic, smart, accomplished, artistic, perceptive women who populate the novel are subservient spokes to the hub that is David: propping up and propelling him to strut and fret center stage. This really bothered me, although I tried to chalk it up to L’Engle’s being a remnant of an earlier era (she was seventy-four when this book was published). But then she solves the problem — cleverly, beautifully, and completely. She had recognized the issue from the start, and upends it magnificently.
The final pleasure of the book is its wise and compassionate stance. Even though its structure is flimsy, its characters and their love and support for one another, their desire to be better, are strong and compelling:
“Is this asking too much of you, Emma?” His eyes questioned her anxiously.
“I don’t know. I think we’re supposed to ask too much of each other; otherwise, nothing would ever get done…”
To spend time with such people is really rather nice.