Synopsis (Warning: Spoilers!): Madeleine L’Engle’s The Love Letters is the story of Charlotte Clement Napier, wife of Dr. Patrick Napier, who flees her marriage and life in New York to go to Portugal to be with her mother-in-law, Violet, who is a brilliant concert harpsichordist, austere, demanding, and Charlotte’s only remaining “point of reference.” While in the small Portuguese village of Beja, Charlotte is drawn into the story of Mariana Alcoforado, a seventeenth century nun and future abbess who becomes caught up in a love affair with a French soldier, thereby ruining her family and (almost) losing her vocation. As the title indicates, Mariana’s love letters to her lover (which were published and were both Mariana’s undoing and what ultimately brings her back to Christ) are an important element in this novel, both thematically and as a plot-driving device.
My Thoughts: I feel like I’m treading in deep water here because I am out of my intellectual comfort zone with L’Engle. I haven’t read her in a long, long time—think sixth grade required reading of A Wrinkle in Time and maybe some follow-up of the sequels shortly thereafter, ‘though I really don’t remember that. I was pleased to find that Janet at Across the Page has been reading and blogging about L’Engle this week; Janet and I seem to think alike on a lot of issues, and that is certainly true of this particular author. Like Janet at Across the Page, I am a life-long Protestant, and Evangelical, at that. Thus, most of the Catholic terminology and way of thinking in this novel was not easy for me to grasp. Because of where I live in the Bible Belt, I would have to think long and hard to come up with one practicing Catholic I know. However, also like Janet at Across the Page, I did find the devotion of the nuns and their struggle with faith familiar and encouraging. It was also fascinating to me to peek into a convent, albeit it a seventeenth century one, and learn about its daily workings.
The most fascinating part about this book is its structure. The story moves forward as a series of flashbacks and flash-fowards (?) between Mariana and Charlotte. There are no chapter divisions in this book. I’ll admit this bothered me a little; I rely on chapter breaks because I read in snippets of time. However, L’Engle makes abundant use of ellipses and spaces to give a reader ample place to pause and reflect or take a break. The ellipses often make connections between Charlotte’s life and Mariana’s. Obviously, I found Charlotte’s life easier to navigate than Mariana’s, and sometimes the real connection between the two was lost on me. After finishing the book, I’ve concluded that the connection is that both Charlotte and Mariana are looking for the true meaning of love, and they both (finally!) conclude that the only real love is the type that loves just for the sake of loving, not because the beloved has done anything to deserve it.
This is a book with only a few major characters, but the book is really all about characterization. L’Engle has a way of getting to the quick of the human problem by driving Charlotte (and Mariana) to finally face themselves:
Be quiet, Charlotte, you’re not the center of the universe. So what makes you think you have any right to be loved? What have you got to offer anybody anyhow? Except love? Your own undisciplined human love.
Why does the joy of love contain so much sadness?
We’re afraid of the sadness because it grows and spreads and becomes too terrible to be borne. And because it leads to tenderness.
The moment of tenderness, the undoing, unbearable moment of tenderness. (209)
It is that moment of tenderness in her marriage, brought about by a tragedy, that she must face.
Dr. Ferreira is my favorite character in this novel. He is the physician who attends Charlotte in Portugal, and he is also the “intimate” of Violet Clement. He speaks words of wisdom to her throughout the novel, and it is his words that helped me see the point of the novel and kept this novel from just being about two women wallowing about it in their self-pity and angst:
“I think you’re missing the point,” the doctor said, stretching his big body out to the sun, “the point of your life. You condemn yourself for your love of people, even your love of Patrick. You don’t need to justify being Patrick’s wife, being a mother, as your career. It has been a true passion with you, as it is not to all women, and it is as creative a passion as Violet’s fugues, or your father’s strange and brilliant books. Or as Patrick’s surgeon’s knife. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t underestimate yourself.” (335)
Later he tells her
“Many things hurt, Charlotte. You must stop paying so much attention to pain.” (335)
This is not a happy book, but it is one I’m glad I read. It reminds me a little bit of A Garden To Keep by Jamie Langston Turner (my review is here) because it deals with painful issues regarding marriage and motherhood. I read The Love Letters as a part of the Semicolon Book Club. Sherry offered this book as an option with the theme of Christian novels for February. (You can read Sherry’s thoughts on The Love Letters here.) Although this is not a Christian novel in the patent way (it was published by a secular publisher and contains a fair amount of offensive language), its conflicts are resolved in a very Christ-pleasing way, I think.
As Mariana’s confessor tells her,
“Love always has meaning. But sometimes only God knows what it is.” (231)
*Quotations are taken from the 1966 edition of the book by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.