17/01/2019

A House Like a Lotus (by Madeleine L'Engle)

I have been enjoying reading Madeleine L’Engle’s teenage fiction books, many of which I had not previously read. I’ve almost reached the end; the chronology is rather complicated as she wrote three separate series, but some of the characters overlap. ‘A House like a Lotus’ is third in the O’Keefe series. It features Polly, who was also a main character in ‘The Arm of the Starfish’ and ‘Dragons in the Water’.

Both the earlier O’Keefe novels were somewhat suspenseful adventure stories, but it was clear early in this book that it’s a more thoughtful character-based novel. Polly is nearly seventeen as we meet her in Greece, on her own and feeling somewhat forlorn. We quickly learn that she has just flown there from the United States. She should have been met by her uncle and aunt, but they have been unavoidably delayed.

It’s clear that Polly is a confident and fairly mature young woman, but that she has experienced some heartbreak over the past few months. She isn’t worried about spending a couple of days on her own, although she hopes her parents don’t know about it, as they would worry. A hotel is booked for her, and she decides to take an organised tour of Athens when a young man called Zachary Grey attracts her attention. He’s quite attractive, very friendly, and also wealthy. He offers to take her out for the day, and she decides to take him up on the invitation.

Zachary is one of the characters who appears in L’Engle’s ‘Austen’ series about an entirely different family, so (as I have read them fairly recently) he was familiar to me as a somewhat pushy, arrogant young man. But I didn’t think he was going to be dangerous. Sure enough, they spend a few pleasant days together. Although Zachary is quite pushy and intrusive at times, he mostly respects Polly’s boundaries, and is the catalyst for her thinking more deeply about her recent past.

The narrative is interspersed cleverly with Polly’s memories, some in daydream format, as she re-lives or re-tells some of what has happened in the past couple of years. It mostly revolves around two women called Max and Ursula. Their relationship is fairly obvious from the start but comes as something of a shock to the somewhat naive Polly at first when gossip hits her. But her friendship with them - and Max in particular - is based on philosophy, literature and other shared interests, and overall I thought this was handled sensitively and well, given the 1980s setting.

There are more secrets in Max’s life, which gradually unfold, but evidently some crisis or betrayal which has caused Polly to want to cut her out of her life entirely; I was intrigued, and found it difficult to put the book down until I finally discovered what happened, towards the end of Part One.

Part Two sees Polly in Cyprus, where she is helping out at a conference in the (presumably fictional) village of Osia Theola. The descriptions felt realistic, but apparently the author had spent some time in Cyprus shortly before writing this book. Polly makes some new friends from various nations, although I wasn’t entirely comfortable with some of the stereotypes. Again, though, the way she thinks of and observes people is probably appropriate for a well-travelled American teenager in the 1980s.

There’s a lot to think about in this book, with many important issues touched upon from Polly’s perspective. She grows up in several ways, and while some of the book is shocking in content, the writing is consistently good. I thought the difficult scenes covered with sensitivity, and minimal detail. As with all L’Engle’s books there’s an underlying Christian theme; this one, as I gradually realised, involves forgiveness. But it’s not pushed or preachy in any way, and could be read by people of any faith or none.

The earlier books were, I thought, appropriate for younger teenagers, but this one has some more ‘adult’ content, and I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone below the age of about fifteen or sixteen. It’s not necessary to have read the earlier books in the series, but doing so adds to the richness of the characters and gives a sense of catching up with old friends.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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