Sunday, November 25, 2012

The story of a marriage

Two-Part Invention, Madeleine L'Engle

This is the fourth of Madeleine L'Engle's "Crosswicks Journals," named for the 200-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut that her family has owned since 1946.  Though I have all four of the journals, I am reading them out of order (I first read the second, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, back in October).  Claire's luminous review of this book inspired me to move it up the reading list.  According to the subtitle, it is "The Story of a Marriage."  From the earlier book, I knew something of L'Engle's marriage to Hugh Franklin, and after two books about troubled marriages, I was ready to read about a good strong one.

Being musically illiterate, I had no idea what the title meant, until I was searching for an image of the book's cover.  That's when I learned that it refers to a series of two-part compositions by J.S. Bach.  He described them as
[an] Honest method, by which the amateurs of the keyboard – especially, however, those desirous of learning – are shown a clear way not only (1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, (2) . . . not only to obtain good inventions (ideas) but to develop the same well;
which seems a very apt metaphor for the marriage Madeleine L'Engle is writing about.

As in The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, L'Engle here weaves together several strands of story.  In that book, she wrote about her parents' marriage and her childhood, with the focus on her mother.  Here she continues her own story into adulthood.  She briefly recounts her childhood in New York City and then Europe, and Hugh's very different experiences in a small Oklahoma town.  Both came to New York after college, hoping for a career in the theater, though Madeleine was also working on her first novel.  At the time she arrived, three prominent actors were offering auditions to aspiring actors, and Madeleine soon found herself in an understudy's role.  From there she went on to play small parts on Broadway and in touring companies.  She met Hugh when both were cast in a war-time production of The Cherry Orchard (Hugh had been rejected for military service in World War II for medical reasons). 

I loved this first part of the book, with its setting in 1940s New York, its cast of famous theatrical names.  One of Madeleine's mentors was the actor Joseph Schildkraut, who attempted to seduce her but cheerfully accepted her firm "No!" and remained a friend.  (He plays the delightfully sly and smarmy Ferencz in The Shop Around the Corner, one of my favorite Christmas movies).  I kept hoping that Madeleine or Hugh would be cast in a play with Cornelia Otis Skinner.  This part of Madeleine's story also reminded me of Helene Hanff's Underfoot in Show Business, an account of a much different, less successful career in the theater.

Madeleine and Hugh's courtship did not always run smoothly, but it ended happily with their marriage in 1946, while both were on tour with Ethel Barrymore.  The wedding was on a Saturday morning, after which they played a matinée and evening performance, both rather on autopilot.  Madeleine then jumps ahead forty years to explain that Hugh is ill, recently diagnosed with bladder cancer.  From that point, her story moves between past and present, as she tells the story of their marriage, the birth of their children, Hugh's career in the theater and her own in writing.  Her first two books were well-received, but she later collected a lot of rejection slips until A Wrinkle in Time became an immediate best-seller in 1963.  Hugh was a successful and respected actor, but he was never guaranteed work until he was cast in a soap opera, All My Children in 1970.  At one point, after the birth of their second child, he gave up acting and the family moved full-time to Crosswicks.  He and Madeleine ran the general store in the village, which brought financial challenges of its own but allowed them to build a strong family life.  Madeleine writes with honesty and insight about their marriage and about their roles as parents.  I found myself thinking that this book might be helpful both for couples preparing for marriage, and for those facing trouble in their marriages.

This story of marriage and family alternates with that of Hugh's medical care, as complications develop and his condition deteriorates.  Though they initially hoped for a cure, a cascade of complications gradually leaches that hope away.  As with her mother's illness, Madeleine draws on her faith to sustain her.  She grounds herself in the details of daily life, trying to accept each day as a gift and to be fully present to it, because God is found there.
I do not want ever to be indifferent to the joys and beauties of this life. For through these, as through pain, we are enabled to see purpose in randomness, pattern in chaos. We do not have to understand in order to believe that behind the mystery and the fascination there is love.
She affirms her belief that
any God worth believing in is the God not only of the immensities of the galaxies I rejoice in at night when I walk the dogs, but also the God of love who cares about the sufferings of us human beings and is here, with us, for us, in our pain and in our joy. . . God comes where there is pain and brokenness, waiting to heal, even if the healing is not the physical one we hope for. . . I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights.
She reminds herself and her readers that is OK to question God, though we must accept that answers may be elusive.  She writes about the strength she finds in prayer, and in knowing that she and Hugh are held in prayer.
A friend wrote to me in genuine concern about Hugh, saying that she didn't understand much about intercessory prayer. I don't, either. Perhaps the greatest saints do. Most of us don't, and that is all right. We don't have to understand to know that prayer is love, and love is never wasted. . . Hugh has been surrounded by literally hundreds of prayers, good prayers of light and love. . . Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to those prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hand outstretched to receive them like precious pearls.
Their love of forty years also sustains Madeleine through Hugh's final illness and death, as does her conviction that "That love has not and does not end, and that is good."  This book is a deeply moving account of that love, their shared life, the family they created, with joy and faith and trust.


  1. How lovely! I will definitely read this, and I will definitely cry.

  2. How heartening to read about a marriage that worked, about a love that lasted! And, also, to read about someone who trusted and believed in God.
    The theatrical days sound really fascinating - I didn't know that L'Engle was an actress!

  3. Lovely review. I am glad you found this as touching as I did. I thought it was a very special and very beautifully written book.

  4. elizabeth, it's a lovely book, as is the one about her mother - which will also make you cry!

    Anbolyn, I hadn't known she was an actress either. For Hugh it was really a vocation, but hers was more writing. She does write beautifully about faith - but realistically, to my mind, including her struggles & doubts.

    Claire, just as I was posting this, I saw that Teresa had highlighted your wonderful review. I was afraid to read it again, I knew I'd end up just saying "Go read hers" !


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!