A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle

Takeaway: On today’s after school special, Polly has to deal with serious things.

I love Madeleine L’Engle’s writing. She takes young adults seriously, she writes about serious issues but she makes her characters real. So I pick up every one of L’Engle’s books when they come up for sale and I intentionally don’t read anything about them prior to reading the book.

This is the third book in the Polly O’Keefe series. Polly is the daughter of Meg  and Calvin from the Wrinkle in Time series. And Zachary Gray from the Austin series is also a significant character in this book.

In the time line this book is set just after A Ring of Endless Light which I read earlier this year and about a year or so before An Acceptable Time which I read a couple years ago.

(There are spoilers in this review, but this is a book that cannot be discussed without spoilers.)

Polly is the oldest of seven children. She has grown up with two scientists as parents and the granddaughter of scientists (one of whom has a Nobel prize). But she has also lived in Portugal, and other remote places (and picked up three languages she can speak proficiently and a few more that she can speak a little.) Now living on a remote island off the coast of South Carolina, 16 year old Polly is trying to find her place in the world.

She does not fit in with her high school kids that are either rich kids in their resort homes or local kids that are unaware of the world outside of their homes. Through her uncle Sandy, Polly meets Max, an elderly (and we find out dying) female artist. Max grows to think of Polly as both friend and daughter and Polly comes near to worshiping Max. Under Max’s care Polly comes out of her shell and starts relating to the world better. This is a story of an older mentor helping a younger woman to come to terms with herself.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks. The book opens with Polly flying to Greece to meet her Uncle and Aunt and then work as a staff person on an international conference. As the story in Greece progresses we slowly learn about Polly’s previous year and what it is that is deeply troubling her.

When she gets to Greece her Uncle and Aunt were delayed and can’t meet her for three days. So 17 year old Polly is on her own. It is here that Zachary comes in and sweeps her off her feet, touring her around Athens and the surrounding areas. Zachary is freshly off of being dumped by the 17 year old Vicky, but once again the 20 something rich playboy seeks out a young innocent to pursue.

I am not sure what L’Engle saw in Zachary, but he seems fairly cardboard bad boyfriend material, even more than in A Ring of Endless Light.

The House Like a Lotus is essentially a meditation on forgiveness. Polly, in Greece and away from her life at home, flashes back to her past year and all of the events and people that need her forgiveness, including herself. When Polly finds out that Max and her partner Ursula are lesbians, Polly does not handle it well. (This was written in 1984, so some of this is definitely dated but feels true to the time period.)

She needs to forgive Max for several things. One, Max is dying and hid the fact from Polly. But more important, Max regularly drank, and drank too much to deal with the pain of her death. (This includes on at least one occasion getting Polly pretty tipsy and then allowing Polly to drive home.)

One night when Polly was staying with Max while Ursula was out of town, Max got very drunk. It is very poorly described, but most people read the event as Max making a violent sexual advance at Polly and Polly getting scared and running out of the house away from Max. I (and a few others) read it as Max getting very sloppy drunk and scaring Polly and Max chasing after her. I read this as not sexual, but maternal desire for approval from Polly because of Max’s own issues with her father and the death of her newborn daughter. A sexual advance from Max toward Polly just doesn’t seem to make sense of everything up until that point, but that is the majority reading.

At this point, Polly is traumatized. She doesn’t want to go home because she doesn’t want her parents to think poorly of Max and Ursula, so she seeks out her ‘boyfriend’ a young intern at the local hospital (she also badly cut her foot as she ran out of the house.) Renny, the doctor, who would have to be at least 25-27, takes care of her at the hospital, gets Polly somewhere to sleep and rest, but then comes back later and they have sex for the first time. The sex is viewed as consensual by Polly, but she has been traumatized and he is about a decade older, so there is an abuse angle to the sex that is not at all explored in the book.

(There is an uncomfortable 16/17 year old girl being pursued by 20 something year olds in both this and A Ring of Endless Light that I want to attribute to an earlier age, but I don’t think it can be. It is just inappropriate.)

In the current timeline, Polly is working at an international literature conference in Cyprus after her time in Athens. Zachary follows her there and because of his stubbornness at not following rules and romantically pursuing Polly they end up in a kayak outside of a bay and it tips over. It is never discussed in this book, but Zachary has a heart condition and cannot exert himself physically for long. So Polly has to save him, and ends up losing the kayak. Several members of the conference come and save them at the last minute. So now Zachary needs forgiveness.

And the guy that saves Polly, she is also interested in, and he is interested in her. But again he is in his mid to late 20s, married and has a kid (although she doesn’t know this until after she is interested in him.) But he is from a society that has had polygamous marriages and so doesn’t really see anything wrong with loving more than one woman at a time, and he knows that he cannot really pursue Polly, although he has no problem kissing her. So that is one more person that needs forgiveness.

All and all, this is a mess of a book that reads more like an after school special from the 1980s. L’Engle can write and there are parts of this book that I loved. But taken as a whole it just does not hold up well, which is disappointing because I think Polly as a character is interesting. But the ‘issues’ that are being dealt with do not hold up 30 years after publication.

A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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