Review: Listening for Madeleine

Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Madeleine L’Engle, beloved author of A Wrinkle In Time (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1962).

The Good: How to write a biography of Madeleine L’Engle, especially when so many people think they know her from her memoirs and what is believed to be autobiographical elements of her fiction? Making it that much more complicated is the controversial 2004 The New Yorker profile by Cynthia Zarin, The Storyteller.

I’ll be honest: I’m a Madeleine L’Engle fan. I’ve read almost all her books — her fiction for all ages, except for a couple earlier hard to find books; her memoirs; but not the overly religious works.

A Wrinkle in Time was the first book of L’Engle’s I read; next was Meet the Austins. I tracked down books, waited for new ones. Enjoyed “discovering” books and chatting about them with friends. I read the Crosswick Journals and believed in the life she presented. So when I read that those stories were, well, not accurate, that, at best, L’Engle omitted some things or painted other things in the best possible light, I felt — relieved. And liked her all the more for it. Knowing that the idealistic version of things was just that, not real, was reassuring in that there was nothing wrong with me or mine for not living in such a golden place. And more than that, L’Engle was as human as the rest of us, doing what she could with what she had, making mistakes and moving forward.

So, that’s the mindset I had going into Listening for Madeleine: a fan who wanted to know more about an author I admire and wasn’t expecting perfection. I read this as a book for similar readers: oh, the works we like may be different, but this is for people who know L’Engle through the books they’ve read.

Listening for Madeleine begins with a short biographical introduction, to give the reader a background for the essays to come. Instead of putting together a biography, Marcus puts together a history of L’Engle from a series of essays by people who knew L’Engle at different times in her life. The essays are divided into sections reflecting L’Engle’s life: Madeleine in the Making; Writer; Matriarch; Mentor; Friend; and Icon. Some are by people who were very close; others reflect fleeting meetings. I enjoyed reading about the essays; seeing when things matched from person to person, when they didn’t (because perspective influences memory and experience).

Another part of Listening for Madeleine I found fascinating was the look at publishing. I recognized some of the essay writers. And some of the details — like the signings at conferences — were so familiar!

Just as the essays sometimes said as much about the teller as L’Engle, I’m sure my takeaways tell something about me. I enjoyed most those that said L’Engle made her writing a priority and talked about how she handled that role. I was also fascinated with the “facts” versus “fiction”, and the reactions to the Zarin article. Given L’Engle’s age, I understand the desire to ignore, hide, or pretend that certain things weren’t true (specifically, her son’s alcoholism) and the belief that some that revealing this was someone a betrayal or hurt or just plain wrong. I understand because I’ve seen that same attitude in older members of my family. And, as with family members, I understand and disagree. I don’t think pretending some things don’t exist help anyone. And even as I write this, here is part of the complexity of what is going on, in that I don’t “know” anything about L’Engle and the things she preferred not to share publicly beyond my interpretation of what is said in these essays.

Other reviews: io9; Bookforum; The New Republic.

10 thoughts on “Review: Listening for Madeleine

  1. I asked for this for Christmas, but did not get it. 😦

    If you for some reason feel you don’t have enough to read, you might WANT to try some of her overtly religious works. They’re not preachy– they’re very searching and reaching and thinking and wondering sorts of things… like all her works are, really.


  2. I’m going to have to break down and buy this. I’m a pretty diehard Madeleine L’Engle fan — though I particularly like her religious writings. Did you know there’s even a devotional book out there with 365 excerpts from her writings? Okay, maybe it’s not a devotional — I think it has a lot about Writing, too, but I read it as a devotional. Thanks for your review!


  3. Rockinlibrarian & Sondy, I probably have some of the books around, just unread. And yes you have to read this! It adds a different dimension and depth to reading her works.


  4. I agree with your enthusiasm about some of the famous people interviewed and the glimpses we got of their interactions with Madeleine L’Engle. But the repetition — boring. Halfway through the book there was very little more to say about Madeline. My impression was that he realized he either could have a very short biography of her, nothing like the wonderful biography of Margaret Wise Brown — Awakened by the Moon, or he could simply reproduce all the research he did for the book with this collection of interviews.


    1. Wendie, I read this over several days, and between other books, so I wonder if that’s why the repitition didn’t bother me? Perhaps this is a book better read over a few days, not all at once? That said, the ones that were more religious-slanted tended to be ones I just skimmed. One thing I wondered, after, about there still being the need for an in-depth biography and whether her status amongst readers, how they think of her, makes that almost impossible.


      1. Yay! I’m so excited to see someone else review this! I found the selection of interviews fascinating, though I do wish L’Engle’s adopted daughter had agreed to be interviewed.

        I devoured it and didn’t find it repetitious–even when recounting the same incidents, the different reactions of the interviewees made it interesting.

        One of the most interesting tidbits to me was that the love interest in And Both Were Young was originally supposed to be female, but an early editor convinced her to change it. It’s probably true that she might never have gotten published otherwise, but that still makes me a little sad.


  5. Liz, I’m curious about which are the “except for a couple earlier hard to find books” that you haven’t read. I hope you’ll hunt them down, because her earliest books are fascinating and, I think, some of her very best work. Ilsa is the hardest to find, but hopefully it’s obtainable through ILL (copies for sale are expensive). I was interested to learn, in Listening for Madeleine, about her close relationship with the owner of Books of Wonder. During my very first trip to NYC, in 1997, I visited Books of Wonder and held a copy of Ilsa in my hands for the first time. I came very close to spending all my spending money on it.


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