Sunday, January 20, 2013

Book Review: A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle (1978)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. Based on comments here and on Goodreads, I expected to like this book, but I can’t believe how disappointing it was.

It is Thanksgiving, and a pregnant Meg Murry is celebrating the holiday at her parents’ house with all of her brothers and her mother-in-law, Mrs. O’Keefe, while Calvin is away at a conference. The phone rings and Meg’s father receives the news that Mad Dog Branzillo is about to wage nuclear war on the world. Mrs O’Keefe, who is typically not very social, suddenly turns to Charles Wallace, recites an Irish rune, and informs him that he must be the one to save the world from nuclear destruction. Charles Wallace wanders out to the star-watching rock, and meets Gaudior, a flying unicorn who will help Charles Wallace travel through time and go “within” various members of Mad Dog Branzillo’s family. If he can find out where one of them went wrong, he should be able to keep Mad Dog Branzillo from blowing things up. In the meantime, so as not to be left completely out of the action, Meg lies in bed with a newly found dog and kythes with Charles Wallace.

There are so many problems with this book that I find it hard to even summarize it without making fun of it. Some of them are minor - such as the fact that the government would call Mr. Murry to tell him the world’s about to blow up, and he would react so calmly and matter-of-factly, and carry on with Thanksgiving dinner, or the fact that Meg, formerly our heroine, is such a passive part of the plot, lying in bed and watching from a distance. I probably could have ignored just these small issues, but there is a whole host of major flaws that make it impossible for me to enjoy the story on any level.

Time travel, for example, is suddenly the easiest thing in the world. Just jump into the wind and let it take you where it wants you to go! A Wrinkle in Time spent time building Meg’s world and explaining how tesseracts operate. To suddenly describe time travel like it’s no big deal cheapens its significance in the first book of the series. I will admit that I’m not naturally a fantasy or science fiction reader and that I don’t like being asked to suspend my disbelief, but this just seems like lazy writing.

Names are also an issue. Every character in Mad Dog Branzillo’s family line has a name that is a variation on someone else’s name from the past. This is obviously meant to highlight the connections between generations, which is interesting, but it takes Charles Wallace, a child genius, nearly the entire novel to figure out that these names are all connected, while I had it figured out very early on. It’s fine to throw in all these connections; it’s silly to assume that the reader won’t notice them, or that Meg and Charles Wallace would need a long time to decode them. The story should not hinge so heavily on a revelation that is right in front of us the whole time.

Even Mrs. O’Keefe’s rune poem started grating on my nerves. Phrases like “the snow with its whiteness” and “the rocks with their steepness” sound very childish, and I had a hard time buying into the idea that reciting these words could have any impact on anything. I understand L’Engle’s desire to connect the natural world to the events and people of the world, but there isn’t enough in the story to explain how steepness, whiteness, deepness, or starkness actually help Charles Wallace. This rune is apparently based on an Irish prayer called St. Patrick’s Breastplate, which makes me wonder why L’Engle didn’t just use the original instead of writing her own.

I am so glad to have this book behind me. Thank goodness this isn’t the first L’Engle book I ever picked up, and or it most assuredly would have been my last. A Wrinkle in Time is a wonderful book, but so far none of the others in the quintet have been able to live up to it. I’m very glad that the next book on my list is A Ring of Endless Light. After all this time being irritated by the Murry O-Keefes, I’ll be thankful to be back amongst the Austins.

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