Friday, May 11, 2018

A Winter's Love by Madeleine L'Engle

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

I doubt I would ever have discovered this book if it had not been for a law school classmate who read it and liked it. To be honest, we have both swapped book ideas enough that we each can whine that our book lists - too long already - have been impacted by the other.

I have, however, read other books by Madeleine L’Engle - her young adult science fiction series. You can read my thoughts on A Wrinkle In Time and A Wind in the Door if you like. A Winter’s Love, in contrast, is neither science fiction nor aimed at children or young adults. It is a straightforward, realistic, literary novel for adults.

L’Engle actually started out by writing books for adults. These did not sell all that well, however, and she had determined that if she didn’t have a real success, she would quit writing at age 40. Soon after making this decision, she had the idea for A Wrinkle In Time, managed to talk a publisher into giving it a shot, and had a bestseller on her hands.

That was in 1959. Two years prior, she wrote A Winter’s Love. After reading her basic biographical information, it is clear that this book contained some elements taken from L’Engle’s childhood. Her father suffered from some combination of damage from mustard gas in World War One and alcoholism (much like one of my great-grandfathers); a condition which led to them living for a time in the French Alps. 

A Winter’s Love is set in the aftermath of World War Two, rather later than the time period L’Engle would live in the French Alps. Rather than an illness, the reason for the winter sabbatical is that the father, Courtney, has lost his job as a professor at a New York university. He has essentially been forced out by the new guy, a trendy writer who finds Courtney to be too old fashioned. The sabbatical had been planned, but now it isn’t fun, but one where the future is doubtful, and the family greatly strained.

The mother, Emily, is the main focus of the story. She met and married Courtney when she was his student. They had two daughters together, but the younger one died at age 8, a tragedy that caused Courtney to withdraw inside himself for a time. Later, they would have another child together unexpectedly, leaving them with a teenager and a youngish child. Now, with the lost job, Courtney has withdrawn again, and is trying desperately to regain his sense of manhood. Emily is devastated by the loss of connection, and unsure what she wants from life.

The older daughter, Virginia, is close friends with Mimi Oppenheimer, a friend who has been essentially adopted by Virginia’s family. (This parallels the adoption of Maria by L’Engle and her husband after Maria’s parents died.) The youngest child, Connie, is a pretty typical - that is to say demanding - little kid.

Already, the setup is stressful: living in a cheap chateau, with a busybody (and kind of nasty) landlady, Mimi’s tales of her parents’ free-love lifestyle, and the tubercular and alcoholic Gertrude living down the street with her mountain guide boyfriend Kaarlo.

But then, an old friend of Emily and Courtney turns up. Abe is now a widower (and later divorcee) with a teen son, Sam. There is a mild love triangle there, as Virginia is smitten with Sam, who prefers Mimi. There is some harmless frisson here, but everyone is young and decent, so nothing worse than a little angst. Much more serious is the fact that Abe and Emily have been in love for a long time, even though neither of them admitted it even to themselves before. But Abe makes the move, and Emily responds.

It is fair to say that they have an affair. It isn’t fully physical, even though at different points they want it to be. (Just not exactly at the same time.) It is, however, emotional and passionate, with a bit of mild touching and kissing. It is also morally troubling to Emily in particular, and much of the book is devoted to her own struggle to choose a path, and reconcile that path with her values.

A subplot in the book revolves around anti-semitism. Gertrude met Kaarlo when both were in the French Resistance against the Nazis. Gertrude has a past and a good story to tell, but she is also badly damaged by her experiences. Her late husband haunts her, and she feels guilty that the uber-healthy and strong Kaarlo is “wasting” himself on tubercular her. The landlady, in contrast, collaborated with the Nazis, and takes out some of her guilt on others by causing trouble and being nasty.

Anti-semitism rears its head first, however, at a dance. Sam invites his friend “Beanie” along, so that there will be a guy for Virginia - and so Mimi and Sam can be a couple. Beanie drops a casually anti-semitic comment about Mimi to Virginia (while Sam and Virginia are dancing), which causes Virginia to stalk out on him. Later, Virginia and Mimi catch sight of Abe and Emily kissing, which basically finishes the job of tearing Virginia’s world apart. And yet, she will not tell her parents what she saw.

Obviously, things are a mess at this point, and they get worse. But L’Engle forces her characters to work through their problems and find a way. It is obvious from the start that the affair is doomed. It is clear enough that Courtney cannot succeed as an academic writer, and so he will have to take a less prestigious job in Indiana, thus taking Emily away from the world she knows - and Abe. It is also pretty obvious that Emily will not be willing to leave Courtney or take his children from him. So this obviously cannot be more than a temporary fling - a winter’s love, so to speak.

So much for the plot. What drives this book is the characterization. It is filled with flawed, imperfect, complex people. It is difficult to either love or hate anyone in it. Okay, except perhaps for Sam and Mimi, who are endearingly sweet in a teenaged way. They too will part after the winter, but one can hold out hope that they might end up together in the long run. And if not, they will part friends.

I myself sympathised with Courtney. I too have had the stress of an uncertain financial future. It wasn’t always easy finding a sense of manhood in a marriage where my wife’s job has always been our source of health insurance - and thus less expendible than mine. She never resented it, but I felt from time to time that I was somehow failing as a man. She didn’t feel that way, but I expected her to. That was a learning process. I also have Courtney’s unfortunate tendency to withdraw when I feel like a failure. So I got how he felt.

Emily too is interesting. She is upright to the point of rigidity, appearing perfect to everyone except herself (and her family, perhaps), which is why she struggles so much to discover she isn’t nearly as good as she wants to think she is. She also is discovering that her black and white world isn’t working for her. L’Engle never really resolves Emily’s feelings either. There is no epiphany, no happy ending for Emily. She will lose something no matter what choice she makes. But L’Engle also doesn’t make this a catastrophe. It is an event. An affair. A winter’s love. It is part of Emily, and who she is. Part of the dynamic here is that Courtney knows even if he doesn’t know the details. He too has a decision, and he admits that if she cheated, it won’t be the end of him - or his love for her. I can very much understand this in the emotional sense. (Not that I have personal experience here or anything.)

The handling of Virginia is interesting as well. She has her teen moments, and they ring true. Again, complexity. Virginia is furious at the discovery that her parents aren’t perfect, and yet she can’t truly hate them either. The relationship dynamics are fascinating - and better written than many books involving teens and parents.

I could go on with more, but I’ll end with that. I found it a compelling read because of the psychological complexity.

I do want to mention a few quotes, however, that I found interesting. Emily and Courtney are what we might call “liberal” or “progressive” by today’s standards. That is, they are opposed to racism, well read and educated, urban, sophisticated, and so on. I mention “today’s standards” because in a bygone era (perhaps even my childhood), this wasn’t a “liberal” thing at all - it was still to be found on the Right. In the setting of the book, however, there is definitely a gap between the “liberals” like Courtney and Emily, and the casual anti-semites, which are linked to racists in America.

I bring this up in part because some of the more fascinating conversations in the book are between Virginia and various adults on the topic of racism. Virginia is in a tough situation, because she kind of likes some things about Beanie, and she doesn’t want to just exclude him from all activities (which makes it hard on Sam, and there are only a few young people anyway, so you get what you get.) One of these conversations is between Emily and Virginia, but references prior conversations with Courtney as well. One question is exactly what Jews are. Being “Jewish” isn’t really being a race (particularly by 1950s definitions), but it isn’t merely a religion either. So what is it about being a “minority” of some sort? How does that happen. Courtney makes the observation that all prejudice against minorities is similar. It isn’t about who the minority is, but about the prejudice of those who are prejudiced. Courtney himself feels in a minority because he cares about “education and books and music and things,” as Virginia puts it. I kind of agree with that. I certainly feel part of a minority for that reason. I feel it particularly acutely living in a town with a lot of people who do not care about those things. (To be fair, there are many that do.) But also, that was one reason that I felt out of sync with my own religion for so long. There is an increasing hostility toward education and thought and reading and music and art and the whole thing - we are painted as “elitists” now, for valuing those things.

Later in the book, Virginia discusses Beanie with Gertrude. A very interesting exchange occurs:

“He’s still pretty young, isn’t he, Vee?”
“Oh no. I think he’s a couple of years older than I am.”
Gertrude smiled again. “Quite grown-up, then. But I think he’s still young enough to change, don’t you?”
“Are people apt to?”
“You know, Virginia,” Gertrude said, suddenly serious, “before the war I was quite thoughtlessly anti-Semitic in a casual way.”
“You, Madame de Croisnois??
“Yes. Of the ‘some of my best friends are Jews’ school.”

I wasn’t expecting that. I somehow thought that “some of my best friends are [black, gay, etc.]” was a more modern term - even if the sentiment likely wasn’t. But there it is. And as true then as now.

One final quote is worth mentioning. Virginia and Emily end up in a conversation about poetry (Virginia writes it), and it veers in an interesting direction.

“We’ve been studying atoms in chemistry this year, too,” Virginia said, “and they kind of fascinate me. And God. God is so tremendously exciting, mother. He’s so much bigger, so much more -- more enormous -- than most churches let Him be. When you look at the mountains -- or when you look at the stars and think how many of them probably have planets with life on them -- and maybe life entirely different from ours --- Mother, why do people all the time try to pull God down so He’s small enough to be understood?”
Emily stood up and put her hands on Virginia’s shoulders. “I suppose because most people are afraid of what they can’t understand.”

Damn. Mic drop. This is a huge reason why I am not comfortable in my church tradition any longer. Their concept of God has to be reduced to an 19th Century theological dogma based on a particular approach to a beautiful but complicated and messy ancient text. It has to be perfectly clear, perfectly rigid, and completely understood by them. Anything bigger than that has to be crushed. This passage also ties in with both Emily and Virginia struggling with the reality of shades of grey that are intruding on their black and white conception of the world, people, and morality.

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like this book - but I trust my classmate’s judgment in certain things. I was not disappointed. This was a better than average book, and I find I am still thinking about it after finishing it.

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