Review: Certain Women


Certain WomenMadeleine L’Engle. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992.

Summary: As actor David Wheaton dies of cancer, his daughter joins him on the Portia and as they re-read the unfinished script of Emma’s estranged husband Nik on King David, they consider the parallels with their own lives, and struggle to come to terms with life in its brokenness, and its joys.

Madeleine L’Engle was best know for her Young Adult fiction work, A Wrinkle in Time, and the sequels to that work. For a time she was married to a successful actor, who she lost to cancer, and wrote about in several works, and I suspect draws upon in writing this. It was my familiarity with her other work that led me to pick up this book when I spotted it in a second hand store (I don’t believe it is in print at present).

The story is that of the last summer of actor, David Wheaton, dying of cancer, diagnosed as he finished one of the ultimate roles of his life, playing King Lear, in which his daughter Emma also had a role. Now Emma, estranged from playwright husband Nik, is with him on the Portia, along with David’s ninth wife (!) Alice, a physician, cruising the waters of the Pacific Northwest, David’s favorite place to be when not in New York.

As David muses and tries to sum up his life, he keeps turning to an unfinished play Nik was writing, on the life and wives of King David. Nik had envisioned Wheaton in the title role, and as David reads sections of the unfinished script, he considers the parallels between King David and his wives, and his own nine marriages, the children from those marriages, and both the wondrous moments, and the brokenness such an unusual family inevitably brings.

It is not only David who is attempting to come to peace with and work out the relationships and mistakes of his life. Emma, relatively fresh from separating from Nik, also is wrestling with what had come between them, and the loves and losses she experienced in this family as well, again with parallels to the family of David. Yet oddly, although her parallel is Tamar, it is Abigail, David’s second wife to whom she is drawn, as well as to David Wheaton’s second wife who comes to visit, also an Abigail, who share with her the experience of losing children.

Eventually, a number of the surviving family arrive, along with Nik. Key in this narrative is the question is how do we come to terms with brokenness and failure, and the paradox of both a love of life, and the darkness of our flawed beings and that we often bring down upon ourselves and others? And with that is the question of what it means to choose life, and love while being these kind of people. Perhaps this is captured most succinctly in a question described by a wise Native American woman, Norma, who spoke of being at a crossroads in her own life and having to choose between a funeral, and a wedding.

Much of this is a story of the wives, and the daughter, Emma, that loved David Wheaton, and much of the conversation, remembered or present occurs between these women, particularly between Emma, Alice, and Abby. The dialogue between these women is perhaps what makes this book stand out, as they listen, choose to uncover pain, explore, wonder and tenderly share whatever wisdom is to be had at the time. At one point, they talk about “friendships of the heart,” in contrast to romantic relationships, particularly between those of the same gender. There is a kind of understanding, of care in the relationships in this book that indeed characterize such friendship of the heart, that is far too rare, and wonderful to behold in this work.

If indeed this work is out of print, I hope it will not always be so. There is a quality of writing here to be savored, even as it wrestles with both life and death, and the dynamics of human relationships, particularly within families and between men and women. One senses in this a writer who wrote out of her own rich experiences of love, loss, brokenness, and yet joy in life, in which every word of dialogue seems to ring true.

Review: Bel Canto

Bel CantoBel Canto, Ann Patchett. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Summary: An international group gathered in a South American country for a dinner party to celebrate a Japanese industrialist’s birthday are taken hostage in a failed attempt by a revolutionary group to seize the country’s president. When months pass without a resolution a strange, an oddly wonderful community develops among hostages, and captors, one strangely forgetful of the inevitabilities of a hostage situation.

Roxane Coss is a world-renowned opera soprano from America who agrees to fly into a South American country to sing at the birthday of Japanese industrialist Mr. Hosokawa, who has loved her voice from the moment he first heard it. He is joined by his ever-diligent translator Gen Watanabe and celebrated by an illustrious cast of dignitaries at the home of the country’s Vice-President. President Masuda is also expected to be present in this ill-disguised attempt to persuade Hosokawa to locate a factory in the country. But President Masuda, stays home at the last minute to watch his favorite soap opera.

On that last minute petty decision turns the whole plot. What was meant to be a kidnapping of a president by a revolutionary militia becomes a protracted hostage siege. Joachim Messner, a Red Cross negotiator visiting the country steps in, with the help of Gen the translator. Ultimately 19 revolutionaries hold 39 men and one woman, Roxane Cass.

At first the threat of death hangs over the hostages, who saw the Vice President brutally pistol whipped and Roxane’s accompanist die in what they too late learned was a diabetic coma. As time drags on and only demands for food and necessities are met, the phenomenon know as the “Stockholm syndrome” develops as bonds form between hostages and captors, even various kinds of love between Roxane Coss and Hosokawa, between the efficient and retiring Gen, and the girl soldier Carmen, between boy soldier Ishmael and the Vice President, and Cesar, another boy, with a tremendous voice who Roxane dreams of turning into a great singer.

All of this is narrated by Patchett in her voice of measured wonder. She describes the unfolding of a world where captives and captors nearly and sometimes do forget the reality of a hostage siege which must end in surrender or bloodshed. It is a world that at least some do not want to end. Perhaps only the negotiator and Father Arguedas, the poor parish priest who volunteered to stay, knowing a priest would be needed, see clearly the alternatives.

Even here, she finds a way to end a book in a surprising implausibility that one didn’t see coming, and to this reader just didn’t seem quite right. It is true that she is not predictable, but the very best do unpredictable in a way that is satisfying, where one might say, “I didn’t see that coming, but it fits, it works.”

Of all of Patchett’s novels, I think this the best. The characters she draws, the measured progress of the plot, moving at the speed of developing relationships and situations, and the strange wonder of the world she creates all draw one in and forward.  I will likely read another Patchett book because of the quality of the writing and the stories she develops, and I’ll keep hoping for that fitting ending.