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.