My August/September YA classics read was Madeline L’engle’s A Wrinkle in Time — but technically, it was a reread. When I was a kid, probably only eight or nine years old, my mother read Wrinkle to me out loud, which left only two lasting impressions for me: the line “There is such a thing as a tesseract,” and the scene with the kids jumping rope and playing ball, which was and remains TERRIFYING.
I loved it when Mom read it to me, though, and devoured the next two books in the series. (But I’m not sure I ever read the others.) In fact, I’m pretty sure I reread the series a bunch as a kid — I was a big re-reader. (I still am, actually.) And yet, I still retained almost nothing except general impressions. Something something time travel, something something mitochondria? Maybe someday I’ll pick up the rest of the series to see what that was all about.
In the meantime, though, what that all added up to was this: A Wrinkle in Time was one of the books in this project I was the most eager to read. I liked it as a kid, plus had fond memories of being read to; not to mention: genre fiction! About a girl! I was psyched!
Sadly, I was also disappointed. I liked the book. But I also spent a lot of time reminding myself how it was a product of its time, and there were a lot of pieces of it that bug me now, as an adult, that I wouldn’t have noticed as a pre-teen. So yep, I liked it, but alas, I didn’t love it.
Structure, Plot, and Pacing
A Wrinkle in Time was first published in 1962, and it feels like it, for two major reasons:
- Meg as a character falls into some tropes that are now pretty tired and cliche;
- Story structure, pacing, and a lot of writer-y type stuff.
Regarding bullet point number one: Meg is a plain girl. She’s so ordinary. She’s a bit of a klutz. (She’s a brunette.) There are special people around her but she’s soooooooo not special. And yet the story revolves around her, because there’s more to her than meets the eye. And those are all things that, as a reader in 2017 — and probably even when I was a pre-teen reader in the mid-90s, tbh — I have read a million times and kind of roll my eyes at. Like, gee, will she discover a special power was insider her all along? Ya think?
And yet it is entirely unfair for me, jaded modern reader that I am, to react like that. Because the book was written in 1962. It was a science fiction novel about a young girl! That was basically unheard of! The fact of the matter is, she isn’t pulling from the trope of the plain girl who turns out to be special inside. She codified that trope.
I wish that as a reader, I’d been able to fully feel that, because Meg does have a lot to offer. She is a girl whose emotions literally give her power. Her stubbornness sends her back to save Charles Wallace (and save the day); her anger keeps her mind free from IT’s control; her love is a literal super power. And while that last one fits with the way female power is often coded — loving, healing, empathetic — the fact that her anger is also powerful is really important in a world where female anger is, all too often, erased and ignored.
But sadly, having spent so many years steeped in stories about girls who are just so plain (except they’re secretly beautiful) and so dumb (except they’re secretly brilliant) and so awkward (except when it counts) and so… etc, etc, that I just didn’t have the patience for her internal monologue about what a monster she is.1 So Meg just… didn’t do it for me, at all.
(But she was still better than Charles Wallace, the most tedious character in the book, and maybe of all time?)
The second area where the book feels old-fashioned is really a matter of structure and pacing — but interestingly, I think, it also comes down to agency. By which I mean: I think in a book written in the last, say, 25 years, Meg would have been a much more genuine driver of the narrative. The way things shake out in A Wrinkle in Time, she is — for at least the first half of the book, anyway — almost an entirely reactive character. Charles Wallace has made a weird new friend (who has other weird friends); they whisk Meg and co off to find her father without giving her any information; strange things happen on the way and she has no control; finally, a bit more than halfway through the book, the kids are dropped on to Camazotz to see what they can do. That point, halfway through the book, is a big turning point because it finally does give Meg a bit of agency, a chance to decide for herself what to do next. But the first half of the book… man, it’s slow and kind of weird.
As I was reading, what really struck me was how little it felt like a science fiction novel. For all there’s plenty of talk about math and science and multiple dimensions throughout, the Mrs. W characters are guardian angels who hand Meg a quest and give her gifts. Strange, magical things happen — things Meg can’t really comprehend — and Meg is doing her best to face down an evil far greater than she is. It not only didn’t feel like science fiction, it didn’t even feel like a post-50s (AKA post-Tolkien) take on fantasy, either. Really, what it felt like as I was reading was a fairy tale.
Consider: if, instead of the oldest daughter it had been a story about a youngest son, who was given strange gifts after showing kindness to strangers, and used those gifts to defeat a vast evil and come back a hero? It could have appeared in any classic collection. Yes, it was a modern story — about a girl; evil was embodied in what looked suspiciously like Communism; magic was really science all along — but it felt even more old-fashioned than I’d have expected for the early 60s, because it felt like it was riffing off much, much older source material, modernizing the language and even characters, but not the structure.
Odds ‘n’ ends:
- There could really be a whole section here about Charles Wallace, but I’m not going to bother. A huge part of the reason Meg has so little agency in the first half of the book is that Charles Wallace gets it all. It’s very clear that he’s the special chosen one — even though Meg saves him in the end, he’s got the special advanced mind that lets him do telepathy or whatever. He condescends to Meg constantly, he withholds information just ‘cause, and though he does have a giant flaw that costs him near the end, he is also clearly the best and most important person in the story. But… it’s not his story. I found him really, really tiresome.
- The other character I didn’t really mention is Calvin, who I mostly like. I appreciate that he’s a male character whose big skill is communication — he’s desperate for earnest, real connections to other people. On the other hand, he also (fondly?!) calls Meg a moron at least once, and also tells her to shut up, all of which really, really rubbed me wrong. (Ana Mardoll is doing an in-depth deconstruction of the book and she talks about Calvin quite a bit, including the Irish Catholic stereotypes he brings to the book.)
- Rereading this actually made me think a lot about its influence on other writers — it definitely had an impact on a lot of SFF readers and writers. It’s pure speculation, but I can see quite a bit of it in Suzanne Collins’ books, especially the Gregor the Overlander series — questions about war, and good vs. evil; setting up stakes around a precocious younger sibling (though in Collins’ work the questions about war are a bit less philosophical and more literal).
But one series where you can really, really feel it is Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is An Alien quartet. The first book is the best known, obviously, but also the most standard fare. As the series continues, it really gets into questions about the nature of humanity. Aside from the fact that the alien spaceships all travel via a technology that looks quite a bit like tessering, there’s a confrontation in Wrinkle, on Camazotz, where IT tries to claim that people on Earth are unhappy because they live separated lives, but on Camazotz everyone is happy because they are all part of IT. I’d be willing to be that the last book in Coville’s series, My Teacher Flunked the Planet, was influenced by that — albeit in a very different direction — when the kids who make up the cast discover that humans are unhappy, and people are cruel to each other, because they were meant to share a consciousness and have shut themselves off from one another. The consciousness those kids discover isn’t L’Engle’s IT — it’s empathy and understanding, not evil and conformist — but the similarity in those discussions is striking.
- Oof, so. This book is kind of Christian, huh? Not in as overt a way as, say, The Chronicles of Narnia, but it’s definitely there. The most noticeable moment is when they realize Earth has long been under attack from IT and the force of darkness, and Jesus was the first person named as a force of light pushing back evil. And that moment for me was a real YIKES, pulling me out of the narrative.
To get mildly personal about it, I hate religious allegory in my fantasy. We were one of the only Jewish families in my small, conservative Christian town. Religion is still something I find deeply othering. As a kid, reading was escapism; smacking into narratives that made me feel that same kind of othered in my books felt like a betrayal. (That’s why I never finished the Narnia books, where the religious aspect is a lot more blatant, and why they aren’t part of this blogathon project. I, frankly, don’t want to read them.)
- Hey hey, there’s a movie coming out next year! I’m actually super excited for it. I think that a modern film adaptation is likely to update some of the pieces that made the book feel old fashioned. I love the idea of the Murray family as interracial (and, shallowly, I am 100% here for Hot Science Dad Chris Pine). I also think it’ll be interested to see how, if at all, the concept of IT is nudged in one direction or another — Communism isn’t our current cultural anxiety, but for a lot of us, fascism is, and it’s really only a hop-skip-and-jump away.
- Finally, an even more personal note: while I didn’t love this book, I could also feel the impression it made on my mother, who I miss very much. Until reading it, I had forgotten that her go-to Halloween costume when I was a kid was, in fact, a Happy Medium.
- It probably didn’t help that I pretty much exactly match her description. Oh, are we bespectacled brunettes completely boring and ordinary but also terrible? ARGH. ↩