Love in the summer stock wings
A newly published book by a young Madeleine L'Engle.
Who doesn’t dream of just one more book by their favorite author – a sequel to “Stuart Little” buried in E.B. White’s Maine barn, say, or news that Harper Lee has been sitting on a follow-up to “To Kill a Mockingbird” all these years? So a new novel by Newbery Award-winner Madeleine L’Engle is, by definition, cause for rejoicing.
A few caveats, though: The Joys of Love (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 272 pp.; $16.95) actually isn’t L’Engle’s last book – it was written in the 1940s, well before “A Wrinkle in Time” catapulted her to classic children’s literature status. Her agent didn’t want to take the book on, so L’Engle later gave the manuscript to her granddaughters to enjoy. The book reads more like a period piece than a young adult novel – full of trips to the Automat, dirndl skirts, and endearing postwar slang. Readers will appreciate it most if they approach it like a newly discovered artifact rather than a work by a mature writer.
The plot is simple: A 20-year-old orphan wins a scholarship to a summer theater. The work is unrelenting drudgery, the manager is a notorious tightwad, and apprentices aren’t allowed to watch the professionals rehearse, but Elizabeth couldn’t be happier. Her cup runneth over when a young director starts paying attention to her. (It’s immediately clear to readers that Kurt is just using her, if only by the condescending way he calls her “liebchen”; Elizabeth, bless her, is a little slower on the uptake.) Meanwhile, the tall assistant stage manager is waiting patiently in the wings for his turn as her leading man. Then, Elizabeth’s magical summer is cut short by her Aunt Harriet, who’s convinced the troupe is a hotbed of iniquity (which, hey, it probably is) and announces she’s cutting off her funds for room and board.
There’s a foreword by one of L’Engle’s granddaughters detailing the ways in which the “The Joys of Love” draws on L’Engle’s own life, which will be of great interest to fans. Younger readers probably will need some explanation of 1940s mores to understand why Elizabeth’s Aunt Harriet is so upset by the easy mixing between the sexes at the summer theater camp. The writing is intensely sincere – there’s none of Meg Murry’s angry awkwardness, no questions of science or theology, and everything is neatly tidied up by the end of a long weekend. Don’t start a young reader here – definitely hand them “A Wrinkle in Time” or “Meet the Austins” first. But a theater-loving teen might just get a kick out of Elizabeth’s old-fashioned adventures.
In fact, that’s who will probably most appreciate “The Joys of Love” – along with grad students doing theses on L’Engle’s work and ardent fans, grateful for a last chance to dip into something new by the author.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.