Faith and Fiction Round Table: Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle

Title: Certain Women
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Genre: Literary fiction
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from the public library
First line: The Portia, a shabbily comfortable fifty-foot boat, was tied up at the dock of a Haida Indian village a day’s sail out of Prince Rupert.

Plot synopsis according to GoodReads: Emma Wheaton has interrupted her successful stage career to attend her dying father, David Wheaton. The legendary actor is obsessed with an unfinished play about the Old Testament King David written by Emma’s estranged husband. As his family—itself of biblical proportions, because David Wheaton has had nine wives and eleven children—gathers, the stories of both Davids and their women are simultaneously woven together and unraveled. For Emma, being with her extended family brings back memories both painful and healing, and confronting her own tumultuous past helps her understand the effect her father’s life has had on them all. As David Wheaton faces his approaching death, Emma grapples with her future. Steeped in the modern world of the theater and the ancient world of prophets and kings, Madeleine L’Engle’s novel examines the lot of mothers and wives and daughters. Certain Women shows her intimate knowledge of theatrical life, resolves a long-held fascination with King David, and continues her exploration of biblical matters.

Certain Women is the first selection read by the Faith and Fiction Round Table, a group organized by Amy. The group consists of bloggers who will read six books throughout 2011, books that may or may not be Christian fiction, but will always deal with issues and aspects of faith. After we read the book, we discuss it online and then each of us posts our thoughts on the book and discussion on the same day.

Because of the nature the round table, this post will not be a typical review, but simply my thoughts on the book and its themes and the discussion it provoked. It may contain spoilers, though I will try to mark them as best I can. At the bottom of the post, you will find a list of all of the round table participants with links to their blogs; be sure to visit them and read what they had to say as well.

This book provoked a wide range of reactions from the round table readers. Some really hated it, others found it just okay, while others – like me – loved it. I will admit that L’Engle’s writing style in her adult fiction is not as easily accessible as in her children’s and YA fiction, or even in her memoirs, but I still enjoy it very much. The thing that stood out to me the most is that this book dealt with real issues of faith and doubt in a world full of heartache and evil. I used to read a lot of Christian fiction, but started to notice that these books often shy away from some of the harsher realities of our world: divorce, rape, abuse, adultery, racism. And since this book was not published by a Christian publishing house, it was not held to the same constraints.

This may not be a positive for some people who read only (or mostly) Christian fiction. The characters have varying degrees of belief – ranging from strong Christians to people who don’t believe at all. Because of that, there is some strong language in the book. One character (spoiler alert) is raped by her half-brother. (end spoiler alert) There are mentions of adultery. These are all topics you would not find in a typical work of Christian fiction. But Madeleine L’Engle never meant to be a Christian fiction writer – she was a writer who happened to be a Christian, and while her faith infuses her work, her work is not set in a primarily Christian segment of society.

Our conversation about the book ranged from the writing style (many found it hard to read, even flat or uninspiring) to the content (the adultery, rape, language, etc.) to the comparisons between the character of David Wheaton and the biblical King David. The comparisons were made directly by the characters in the book, something that didn’t bother me, but to others came across as heavy-handed.

An issue that came up in our discussion that really resonated with me was the topic of forgiveness. Because David Wheaton had been married and divorced so many times, and because the characters were all flawed people, the fact that the majority of the family remained closely tied to each other was a testament to true, deep forgiveness. That is the only way that the children of David’s various marriages could have maintained anything resembling sibling relationships – with unconditional and ongoing forgiveness.

Here are some of the thoughts about the book that I posted in our discussion.

My favorite thing about the writing style is the way she incorporates the details of daily life in the midst of what the characters are going through on the boat (the place David had gone to die, and where Emma visited him). Basically, they are waiting for David to die, and yet needs like dinner, bedding, etc. must still be met. It gave the writing such realism that it almost felt voyeuristic – as if I was witnessing real people.

Another thing that kept popping up as I read is that David Wheaton was a hard character to like: unfaithfulness, inability to stay married, his darkness and self-pity, treatment of his wives – and yet so many adored him and he was so blessed by the people in his life. As I read further and realized that his life had so many parallels to King David, I began to think that was the whole point. David royally screwed up, and yet God chose him. We screw up, and yet God loves us and saves us and forgives us.

One theme from this book that has stuck with me is the issue of depression. They didn’t really call it that, but talked about David’s “gray moods” or despair. In the Bible study I’m currently attending, we’re studying the book of James, and so the issue of trials and suffering has come up a lot. The fact that we, as believers, are instructed to consider it joy when we undergo trials and suffering. In our society, it seems that most people’s goal is to be “happy.” People have a tendency to leave marriages, churches, jobs, etc., because these people or things are no longer making them happy. As Christians, we are promised God’s peace and strength and grace and joy, but that doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed to feel happy all the time.

In the book, the dark times were treated as just part of life – part of our human experience. Both the characters of David and Emma felt things deeply. Sometimes I wonder that because we can be so concerned with our own happiness and avoiding pain at all costs, we forget that times of sadness or grayness are part of the human experience, too. When we deny that depth of sadness, do we also deny heights of joy?

Please know I’m not speaking of clinical depression, or saying that people who are depressed shouldn’t get treatment. I’m speaking out of my own experience – that when I have times of sadness or doubt, I tend to medicate them with food or busy-ness or other things, instead of allowing myself to experience the sadness and doubt and figure out what I’m supposed to be learning from it.

I’ll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Certain Women:

“’Maybe we have to sin, to know ourselves human, faulty, and flawed, before there is any possibility of greatness.’” ~p. 326

“Nik was Nik, and that was not going to change. Emma was Emma. Was she strong enough to allow both of them to be themselves? Bahama had instilled in her an honoring of promises, but she could not keep her promise unless she was willing to allow Nik to be Nik, not a projection of someone who could fill all her empty spaces, heal all her wounds….We are all wounded, and we will never heal until we accept our wounds…” ~ p. 334

“Nik cut her off. ‘We all paid. We don’t live in isolation. When wrong is done, everybody pays. Eventually we have to realize it’s all been paid for.’

Emma let her breath out slowly, not quite a sigh.

‘It’s time to stop thinking about blame and guilt. Actions have consequences, and they have to be played out.’

‘And then we have to let them go,’ Emma said.

‘Can we?’ Nik demanded. ‘Are we both damaged goods? So damaged that we simply can’t make it in an ordinary human way?’

Emma turned on the flame under the coffeepot. ‘I was in a show once with an actor who’d had TB, and when I was concerned about his going out in a horrible rainstorm, he told me not to worry, that his TB was cured, and that scar tissues is the strongest tissue in the human body. I suspect that spiritual scar tissue is strong, too, and that it should make us more able to be human, rather than less.’

‘It’s made you stronger,’ Nik said. ‘I’m not sure about me. Am I still using my background as an excuse for all my horrible behavior?’

‘No, Nik, I agree with you that we have more free will than that. We can hang on to our scars, forgetting that they are healed, or we can get on with life.’” p. 337

Faith and Fiction Round Table Partcipants:
~ Heather at Book Addiction
~ Julie at Book Hooked Blog
~ Sheila at Book Journey
~ Jennifer at Crazy for Books
~ Ronnica at Ignorant Historian
~ Nicole at Linus’s Blanket
~ Amy at My Friend Amy (our gracious hostess)
~ Thomas at My Random Thoughts
~ Liz at Roving Reads
~ Sherry at Semicolon
~ Florinda at The 3 R’s Blog
~ Tina at Tina’s Book Reviews
~ Brooks at Victorious Cafe
~ Hannah at Word Lily

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18 Responses to Faith and Fiction Round Table: Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle

  1. Rebecca Rasmussen

    Oh I definitely want to read this one! Happy Saturday! 🙂

  2. Word Lily
    Twitter: Wordlily

    Some of those quotes are among the ones I marked down, too! I really enjoyed this book, and I was glad for the group to discuss it with, as well. 🙂

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Hannah – why didn’t you tell me I missed you on my list of participants?! I’m so sorry – I thought I took the list right off of Amy’s blog, but somehow skipped you. I fixed it. 🙂 And we had a great discussion, didn’t we?

  3. Pingback: Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle | Semicolon

  4. Heather @ Book Addiction
    Twitter: BookAddictHeath

    As you know, I also loved the book. I agree with your thoughts on the content of the book being more “real life” than typical Christian Fiction, which could be why I don’t read a lot of CF. I like my fiction to be real, and life is gritty and dark and heartbreaking some of the time, so I want my fiction to reflect that.

    Anyway – I loved discussing the book with all of you! It definitely helped expand my own thoughts and brought aspects of the book to my attention which I probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Heather – I think that this first round table discussion was really a success – not that everyone loved the book, but in that it provoked some wonderful discussion.

  5. Laura @ I'm Booking It
    Twitter: bookingit

    I read this book many years ago (probably when it first came out), and have very little memory of it, but I don’t think I thought about it as deeply as you did. It sounds like this would make a great book for book club discussion, particularly if the group contains people familiar with the biblical references (I probably would have qualified when I first read it, but not so much now).

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Laura – the cool thing is that L’Engle incorporated the Biblical parallels in such a way that the reader doesn’t really need to have much prior Biblical knowledge to get a lot out of it.

  6. Great thoughts, Carrie. I wish that dark times weren’t a part of life, but I should learn to embrace them more.

  7. Florinda
    Twitter: florinda_3rs

    I feel that those of us who loved this book were in the minority, and I found the discussion eye-opening. You captured the high points very well. The novel is not Christian fiction, but if it were, I guess it would be of the “edgy” variety. Those edgy elements were a big part of what made it resonate for me.

    You’re right that, on the face of it, David Wheaton, was a hard character to like…and yet he was quite loved. I don’t know the Biblical source material well enough to assess how that parallels the story of King David, but it was a big part of what fascinated me about the dynamics of the Wheaton family.

  8. Kailana says:

    I read this a few years ago and liked it, but I am not sure I would like it again if I reread it.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Kelly – isn’t it interesting how the place you are in your life will have such a profound effect on the way you react to a book?

  9. Tina says:

    Awesome thoughts on this book!! I think you are very right about times of sadness. Even the Bible says we will go through times of all emotion. Thanks for your insights.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Tina – thanks for your comment. It has been insightful discussing this book with all of you.