Sooooo. I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time the other night because it was so hot I couldn’t sleep, and
As often happens when I read a book that I mostly found good but had some big issues with, I want to talk to someone about it. But this is not just a classic, it is a Beloved Classic, and while we can give Narnia and the Problem of Susan the stinkeye and admit that LOTR is kind of hinky on the all kinds of scores, some books seem to be Beyond Criticism. You don’t go taking your red pen to The Phantom Tollbooth. You just don’t. It’s not nice. And everyone loved this book as a child. The shock that went up on my Twitter feed when I said it was my first read was intense. My friends get this soft, dreamy look on their faces when I mention Charles Wallace.
And yet, why didn’t I read it? I obviously own it. (The whole series, though I’ve only read the first one so far.) I’ve obviously heard of it and been vouched for its quality. Though when I think about it I seem to remember other people saying: yeah, I loved it, but you should not read it. You wouldn’t like it. You would have Issues. And so I didn’t. But now I have. And I want to talk about it! But you can’t talk about the stuff we loved as a kid in a critical way. (Not that everyone hasn’t gotten Cool Points from shitting all over LOTR, my beloved adolescent books, in the last several years.) And I didn’t not like it. Some of it just bothered me, as an adult reader in the 2010s, rather than a child in the sixties or seventies, for whom I suspect this was as revelatory as a book could get. So, I am going to talk about A Wrinkle in Time, and I beg you not to get too angry or comment with the popular refrain: yeah that’s true but I loved it anyway. I know you did. Everyone did. You should keep loving it, for it is loveable. And we all want an Aunt Beast. (And a mother like Mrs. Murry.)
It really is highly readable–I peeled through in one night–and full of endearing characters. I can see why this book matters to people so much–firstly, best family ever. I mean, it’s like the opposite of Harry Potter (or I suppose it’s really the Weasleys, down to the red hair) and other orphan narratives where the protagonist clearly Does Not Belong. Meg is so utterly a product of her family, she belongs there, and is loved for who she is. Bookishness and geekiness are good and encouraged Murry traits. Mom is an awesome scientist, and so is Dad. Sporty brothers are viewed with slight suspicion. It’s the family we all want to be in, and few of us are.
But…despite Mom being a scientist, she stays home and takes care of the kids while Dad has adventures. She is perfect and beautiful, (uncomfortably, Calvin’s mother is expicitly not beautiful, and this is kind of a shorthand for her not being as Good as a Murry–though good heavens, a woman who has had seven children and lost all her teeth might have reason to be cranky) but domestic, cooking beneficently for her family while doing her experiments. She is not employed by the government; she is not even allowed to be involved in the rescue of her husband for no defined reason. (I mean, really, she knows him better than any of her kids, all of whom were tiny when he disappeared. Why can’t she go? Dad can be a Player.) I know in 1962 this must have been super-advanced, female-role wise, but now it feels discomfiting. I recognize that I react incredibly poorly to the "woman who stays at home being awesome and carrying on while her husband is away" trope for obvious personal reasons (I basically won’t even read The Time Traveler’s Wife. This is a thing which triggers me, and I don’t use that word lightly.) It’s especially squirmy when considered alongside the issue of Meg.
I suspect everyone loves Meg. Identifies with her, because she is an outcast in school, and even in her own family feels different, all the while she is assured she isn’t. (She is though, as we’ll see. She’s the only one, essentially, without superpowers.) We love that type–especially when they only think they are not smart, while actually being pretty great. (I can’t recite the periodic table, yo.) But here’s the thing: everyone in this book is special but Meg. Even Calvin, who really is just some rando Charles Wallace ran into, even Calvin has a special gift and is destined to be wonderful, destined to be part of the family and obviously Meg’s future husband. Calvin’s gift is communication with the alien, Charles Wallace is clearly Jesus or something (having looked up the wiki it would seem we never actually find out why Charles is special, nor what happens to him, which is MADDENING), so incredibly marvelous and perfect that he must be protected at all costs. Meg’s gift is…being difficult and kind of pissy. And loving her (male) brother. All the men are endowed and stalwart and gifted with particular talents. Meg’s talent is an especially female one–loving her male relatives and…well, I got very tired of how many times she "wailed" "cried" or "stamped her foot." This is very infantilizing language, removing her feeling from anger or passion into the realm of tantrum. Charles Wallace is always described in adult terms, though he is five. Meg in childish terms though she is at least 14 (in high school).
Again, I’m sure back in the day having a girl as the lead at all was amazing–but Meg is not the hero of her own story. She is a Girl Having Adventures, yes, but those adventures are all about other people, she is never the point or the mover, and everyone around her is a Male of Import. More import than Meg, always, more power, more agency, more options. It was painful to me to see her so infantilized and sidelined, down to essentially fainting for a whole chapter because she’s not as good at traveling as the men–even Calvin! Who has no reason to be naturally awesome at anything the Murrys are! Calvin bothered me, as you can see. He gets very little development for how central he is to the plot, and is introduced so suddenly and is so great at being a Murry he makes Strider look like a subtle debut.
In structural terms, the book felt very rushed at the end, and I found myself gaping at (spoilers) IT’s revelation as a giant brain. Really? That’s IT? It’s become so cliche now to have a giant floating brain that I can’t see it as scary or even interesting–plus the word IT makes me think of King’s novel, and amps my expectations. I felt a whiff of anti-communist preaching in Camazotz, and wanted, really, a whole lot more to happen in those sequences. We get pages of Charles falling under the influence, but very little else. I loved Aunt Beast of course, and wanted more there too. Every single piece of the book was so interesting, but I never got enough of any of it, or enough specificity. Maybe that’s elsewhere in the series, explaining what is going on with everything.
And the God stuff…eek. Narnia was subtle, comparatively. Angels and Jesus and God, God, God.
But for all that it is incredibly compelling–like Babylon 5 it seems to be more than the sum of its parts. The gender stuff is as ever hard for me to let go of (even the Mrs. W’s are genderless in their true forms, not really women) even if they and the structural irritations are perhaps products of their time. It was lovely to see a portal science fiction tale, the tropes of portal fantasies transferred over to science fiction. Some of the passages, most particularly Aunt Beast and the Mrs W bits, were just charming. And I am still quite seriously considering naming my incoming boy-kitty (at some point soonish from darling Betsy) Charles Wallace. (Arrrg, how could MLE leave us not knowing what and where he is? I swear here and now never to do that ever.)
And yet. And yet.
Some childhood novels one can read as an adult and find wonder there. And some are hard to read as one might have when one could just black out the bits that bothered. I feel like I have missed a beautiful and moon-colored train where all the other children can shriek in delight and trade tales of tessering, leaving me to stand on the platform mumbling "But…"
PS Feel free to spoil future books for me in the comments–spoilers don’t really ruin books for me, and I’m undecided on whether to read them. Also, I said I looked up the wiki.