I’ve read this book before; Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorite authors. She writes especially good fiction concerning two subjects: death and marriage. Certain Women is about both. It’s the story of Emma Wheaton, a successful stage actress, and her father David, not only successful but legendary star of the American stage. David is dying of cancer, and Emma has come to be with him on his boat in the Pacific Northwest. She’s not only coming to care for and say good-bye to her father, however; she’s also running away from her marriage in which the tension and melancholy of her writer husband have become too much to bear. Emma finds that she can’t escape the past since her father is reliving it in order to come to terms with his own imminent death.
The book has some profound things to say about marriage–David Wheaton has engaged in serial monogamy over the course of his actor life. He has been married nine times. He compares himself to King David in the Bible, and many of the events of his life seem to parallel the events of David’s life. The characters in the novel spend a great deal of time analyzing the life and loves of the Biblical David, drawing analogies, pointing out where those analogies fail. The novel is not a retelling of the Bible story of David, but it does draw heavily on Biblical sources and interpretations. Because he feels he has been a failure in the marriage department, David Wheaton is especially concerned that his daughter, Emma, be reconciled in her marriage before he leaves her.
I remember thinking the first time I read this book that parts of it read like a soap opera. Knowing that L’Engle’s husband, Hugh Franklin, was a long time actor on All My Children and, not coincidentally, that he died of cancer a few years before Certain Women was published, I thought maybe she was influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, by the soap opera atmosphere. Re-reading the book, I’m not so sure. Nine wives is a little excessive, but then King David’s life which forms the background for the novel was something of a soap opera, too, with all his wives and wars and sons and murder and adultery. And perhaps there are actors who have had nine or more wives–or husbands. (How many times has Elizabeth Taylor been married?) L’Engle only occasionally tips over into melodrama, and she does much better than most authors could with the raw material of David’s life, a drama if there ever was one.
I asked for a copy of Certain Women for Christmas because I remembered it fondly and wanted to re-read it. It was definitely worth the time. Mrs. L’Engle and I probably don’t agree on principles of Biblical interpretation, but we would agree wholeheartedly about many other things, the importance of marital commitment, the trustworthiness of God, the necessity of forgiveness. And Madeleine L’Engle is one of the finest storytellers living in the United States. Not hyperbole, just a fact.