Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book Review: Many Waters

Many Waters, the fourth book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, continues to follow the fantastic time/space travel exploits of the Murry family. Instead of focusing on Meg and Charles Wallace, however, this novel is about their “normal” siblings Sandy and Dennys. The twins have always been the ordinary members of the extraordinary Murry family and haven’t taken part in previous adventures, but when they fool around with their father’s computer and inadvertently mess up his experiment with “tessering” through time and space, they suddenly find themselves in the midst of the story of Noah and the Ark, straight out of the Bible. (It’s just like those “Greatest Adventure” cartoons with Derek, Margo and Moki that they used to make us watch in Sunday School!)

Derek, Margo and Moki!

This begins their unbelievable new life in pre-Flood Earth—and by unbelievable, I mean hard for me to believe. I find a lot of elements of L’Engle’s writing difficult to swallow even for Children’s Literature, and this novel is probably my least favorite of the series (although I have yet to read the fifth) in part because the beginning is so badly written. Sandy and Dennys have a very cliché conversation that smacks of speedy, lazy character exposition à la Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys or the Sweet Valley Twins. Then for no particular reason, the two boys are typing a request into the computer that they be transported some place warmer than the cold New England climate where they live. Magically, the computer is able to comply – and I find myself wishing that going on a vacation to Maui were really that simple. L’Engle tries to explain some of this with a lot of talk about quantum leaps and particle physics, but even in a science fictional world where time/space travel is possible, this all sounds like a load of hooey.

If a reader doesn’t get hung up on these things, though, I admit that there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in this novel, even though the plot is rather slow. Seraphim and nephilim, creatures which L’Engle developed from a few vague biblical references, live amongst the humans in pre-Flood Earth. At first, it is not clear exactly who or what they are – they are described as beautiful giants with wings that are able to assume animal forms. Neither is it clear whether they are good or evil at first; the race of men know that these creatures are a different species and some consider it to be an honor to be chosen as a mate for these glorified beings. A great deal of tension comes from the interplay between the humans, seraphim and nephilim as some of the characters wrestle with whether to trust the nephilim in particular. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that the seraphim are angels and the nephilim are fallen angels, and it is the development of this largely-ignored Biblical mythology that I find to be the most interesting aspect of the novel. Though the nephilim are only mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, there is a lot of potential to mine from those brief references.

Sandy and Dennys find themselves amidst the tension between the seraphim and nephalim, as well as the tension between Noah and his father. Though the two boys initially suffer life-threatening heat stroke from prolonged exposure to the desert environs, they manage to help reunite the Biblical patriarch and his stubborn, aging parent – thus securing themselves a place within Noah’s family. Though they miss the rest of the Murrys, who remain back in the twentieth century, they have no idea of how they might return home and so they adjust to life in pre-Flood civilization. They cannot dismiss the nagging question, though, of what will happen to them when the torrential rains come.

As in all of L’Engle’s Time Quintet novels, the journey across time and space is a catalyst for the characters to learn something about themselves and grow into the world around them. Sandy and Dennys are fairly immature and thoughtless at the beginning of the novel, messing with their father’s computer equipment, and they are extremely dependent on each other, functioning as two halves of a whole. Separated while they recover from their heat stoke and severe burns, the two begin to think and operate more independently of one another, and living in the much more harsh environment without the comforts of twentieth century technology forces them to mature in other ways. Finally, while they have generally ignored girls and romance up until this point, they both fall in love with Noah’s youngest daughter Yalith, which becomes another source of tension and a catalyst for further emotional development.

While I found these coming-of-age themes to be interesting, there is a lot of sexual content to this novel that is not present in the first three novels of the Time Quintet. In fact, when reading A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, I got the distinct impression that L’Engle went out of her way to avoid any overt romantic or sexual activity. Throughout the first two novels, Meg and Calvin’s relationship is referred to as a “special friendship,” and even when they are married and expecting a child in the third novel, Calvin is attending a scientific conference out of the country and Meg is in many ways still characterized as a young and innocent girl. This novel is therefore quite different – the nephilm seduce and marry human women, then have their women try to seduce the twins in order to discover more information about them. Meanwhile, Sandy and Dennys struggle with their attraction to the same young woman throughout the novel. But although I don’t have a problem when books have sexual content, I find it unsettling that a novel written at the children’s level so openly discusses lust and seduction.

Overall, Many Waters was fairly unappealing to me for these reasons; I found the science fiction aspects to be too incredible for readers any older than eight or nine years old, yet the sexual content to be inappropriate (?) for anyone of that age. Yet I will admit that there were enough aspects of the story that I found interesting that by the time I had read two-thirds of the novel, I wanted to see exactly how Sandy and Dennys would escape the Great Flood and return home. The last one hundred pages were more absorbing, and though I can’t really say that I ever became engrossed in the novel, I will say that I can see why some readers would enjoy this story. If you love L’Engle’s other writing, or if you are really interested in the concept of traveling back through time to experience the events of the Bible, then you will probably like this novel well enough. Therefore, I’ll rate it with a "provisional" three stars – a good read for those of you with specific tastes and interests. Generally, though, I consider this to be more of a two star book and for most readers, the novel probably isn't worth your time.


  1. +JMJ+

    I don't know who Derek, Margo and Moki are, but I grew up watching Super Book and Flying House, Japanese (I think!) produced cartoons with a similar time travel premise and objective of familiarising children with Scripture! =P Even then, however, I didn't make the connection to Many Waters until you pointed it out. Well spotted! =P

    You're also right that L'Engle is very restrained in writing about sexuality in her earlier novels--to the point that Meg and Calvin seem to be sleeping in twin beds, like in 1950s movies and sitcoms. LOL! But she does take it to another level here--and I don't know if she really made it work. =S I wasn't too bothered reading this as a teenager, but now that I look at it again with a more critical eye, I don't see why she wanted to write about sexual awakening in such a context. Yes, there's the "many waters cannot quench love" (or however the verse goes), but it seems like such a forced fit.

    Also, I don't think she does the twin brothers falling for the same girl plot very well, to begin with, which made me really upset when she flipped it over and made Yalith fall in love with both Sandy and Dennys at the same time! Serious weirdness I don't even want to think about any longer . . . =P

  2. I think that's a really good way of putting it -- she just doesn't make it all fit together. It feels forced, which is really too bad because a lot of the story ideas could have made a good novel, if it had been written by the right person.

  3. Come to think of it, we used to watch Superbook, too! And Psalty the Singing Songbook -- have you ever seen that one?

  4. +JMJ+

    Ooooh. I'm afraid Psalty is completely unfamiliar.

    Makes you wonder what this latest generation gets. LOL!

  5. Oh my gosh... Psalty was particularly horrible. Picture a grown man dressed as a blue hymn book and his face painted blue to match. (There was also a cartoon version.)

  6. +JMJ+

    Hmmmm. I know about a grown man who dressed rather normally but carried around a box with a talking donut. My sister and I still laugh (and not in a very charitable way, I'm afraid!) at the lyric, "Life without God is like a donut/ 'Cause there's a hole in the middle of your heart." LOL!!!

    By the way, I think there is more to say about L'Engle's characterisation of Meg, who is both her best drawn character and the one she is most dismissive of. First, as you point out, Meg is very girlish and innocent, even when she is married to a man she is madly in love with and is pregnant with his child! And second, as a married friend of mine remarked to me, L'Engle all but dismisses Meg later on after Meg chooses to be a housewife and bring up seven children instead of having a career.

    On the other hand, I heard that before she died, she was working on a novel featuring a middle-aged Meg. I'd do anything to get my hands on her drafts--or even just her notes!

  7. Yeah, I would like to comment more on Meg and L'Engle's characterization and/or lack of characterization... I am going to read a few more of her novels, then write a "Spotlight on L'Engle" post that sums up my thoughts of her work in general. Of course, I'm planning to do this after I read An Acceptable Time and A Ring of Endless Light, so I won't have read *all* her works like you -- it won't be as thorough as it could be, but since I'm not the biggest fan, I'm not sure I want to commit to reading *all* of her novels. Would you recommend any more of her writing in particular (keeping in mind that the only one that I've really liked so far has been A Swiftly Tilting Planet)?

  8. +JMJ+

    Hmmmmm. An Acceptable Time has always been my favourite, for some reason, but I'll admit it pales next to A Swiftly Tilting Planet. (Then again, don't they all? LOL!)

    I hesitate to recommend a specific book (because experience has taught me that what I like and what others like often oppose each other--*sad sigh*), but I can tell you a little about her other books in the "Chronos" series.

    Meet the Austins is, as the title suggests, the introduction to the Austin family, which is based so strongly on her own family that, if I remember correctly, they really hate it. (LOL!) It's short enough to read in a day or two, and it will make it easier to figure out who is who in A Ring of Endless Light, which is the fourth "Chronos" book.

    The Moon by Night is about the Austin family's road trip around the US and Canada. It's also the first appearance of Zachary Gray, a recurring character whom L'Engle fans traditionally can't stand. (Personally, I think L'Engle uses him as a straw man for everything she disagrees with--but he later takes on a life of his own.) He shows up again in A Ring of Endless Light to complicate Vicky's life with his "darkness."

    The Young Unicorns is set during the year when the Austins live in New York. It's actually my favourite Austin Family novel because of the setting, the darker edge and the sprinkling of SF--but it's also the one easiest to leave out because none of the characters appear again and the Austins are just caught up in someone else's adventure here.

    Troubling a Star is the book that follows A Ring of Endless Light. Vicky goes to Antartica and (sort of) develops a relationship with a boy she met in the previous book. However, L'Engle wrote this after her own trip to Antartica, and it's more about her love for that land than the growth of her characters.

    As for the other Kairos books--The Arm of the Starfish, Dragons in the Waters, and A House Like a Lotus--they focus on Meg and Calvin's family, but are more Suspense than Fantasy. They're not big favourites, and that's no surprise. =P The only one I recommend--and this is with reservations--is A House Like a Lotus because An Acceptable Time, while not strictly a sequel to it, resolves one issue left hanging in it at the end. On the other hand, that issue involves Zachary Gray, so if you read A Ring of Endless Light, you'll know all you need to know about him before leaping into An Acceptable Time.

    Which was a lot of words to say that if you worry about getting the characters straight, Meet the Austins and The Moon by Night are the only two other books you should read. =P

    *takes a deep breath*

    I hope this helps--and that I didn't wear out my welcome! =)

    PS--My captcha is "boldnes," which is what it took to write such a know-it-all post. LOL!

  9. Hah hah... no you haven't worn out your welcome. This is why I started a book blog in the first place -- to find people who wanted to talk about the same books that I wanted to talk about! :-)


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