A Live Coal in the Sea is a sequel to Camilla, published 45 years later. That distance in time between the two books is nearly the distance in time within the books.
Camilla was about a 15 year old growing up in New York City and coming to be aware of the tragedies of life outside of herself. A Live Coal in the Sea is about Camilla sometime in her mid to late 60s. The story catches up on the intervening years through flashback and story. Camilla’s granddaughter, Raffi, is going to college at the small school where Camilla is an astronomy professor.
After some vague and confusing disclosures by her father, Raffi comes to her Grandmother to get the whole story. This begins a long recounting of both special tragedy and the normal process of people coming together as a family, working through issues in a marriage and with children, the aging and dying of people around them and the coming to terms with the meaning of life.
At root, this is a family drama. The sins of one generation impact later generations. And while some members of a family adapt, heal and move on, others cannot and the generational cycles continue.
For me this is a mid-level L’Engle book. It doesn’t rise to the level of her Crosswick Journal insights into humanity. It isn’t as compelling as A Swiftly Tilting Planet or A Ring of Endless Night. But it also isn’t as disturbing as A House Like a Lotus or as boring as Meet The Austins.
This is not a young adult book like Camilla. It is intended as an adult book and it has adult themes. Infidelity, sexual and physical abuse of children, homosexuality, death and loss, and emotional abandonment are all present. It isn’t a particularly happy book, but it also isn’t a book that feels like it was trumped up to be overly depressing. While there is unusual tragedy in the book, the framing of the tragedy is focused on how all of our lives can be, and are, tragic in some ways. But God meets us in that tragedy because God loves us.
L’Engle isn’t writing ‘Christian Fiction’. She is writing fiction that is informed by her Christianity. Most Christian publishers would not touch this. But while I don’t think it is among her greatest book, it is a solid book.
(spoiler discussion below)
My only issue with too strong of a recommendation is that the presentation of gay characters and gay sex will not age well. This is a spoiler, but one character is sexually abused as a child by his father. As an adult that man has another gay sexual encounter. (The encounter is described in terms that was both consensual and non-consensual, so I really am not sure whether it was intended to be written as a rape or a semi-consensual act between a predator and vulnerable adult.) The part that I am conflicted about however it that the adult act was observed by a child and that observation starts what would now be called a PTSD-like response.
L’Engle writes another gay character that helps the wife of the man comes to terms with the infidelity (or abuse). So it is not that she is writing all gay characters as oppressors or predators. But in both this book and House Like a Lotus, there is trauma that is a response not to direct abuse by a gay character, but trauma that is a response to a character being gay. Camilla, in the first book, walks in on her mother having an affair. And while she is traumatized by the infidelity, the sex itself isn’t traumatic. When a male character walks in on his father engaged in gay sex it causes PTSD like response that lasts decades. And it appears to me that the trauma is not from the infidelity, but because of the gay sex. There is a parallel there that seems to not have been acknowledged in the writing.
There is a line somewhere, and I am not sure where the line is, between reading something in the historical context of when it was written and rejecting a book because of how it handles an idea. I do not think we should reject Huckleberry Finn because the use of the N word and corresponding attitudes because it is a book that was written in a particular time and reading it now can help us understand the historical realities of when it was written.
A Live Coal in the Sea was published just 21 years ago. If it were primarily targeted at teens as a young adult book, I would probably be more hesitant to recommend it. But it is intended as an adult book in more areas than just this one.
If you have read Camilla, I would recommend reading A Life Coal in the Sea. You do not have to have read Camilla to start A Life Coal in the Sea, but there are some references where the background is helpful.