Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Severed Wasp

My 1982 paperback
A Severed Wasp / Madeleine L'Engle
New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, c1982.
388 p.

Reading A Severed Wasp was a little bit like a L'Engle 'old home' week. Numerous characters from her other books reappear as adults who meet our main character, Katherine Vigneras, as she settles back into New York in her retirement. Katherine Forrester, now Vigneras, was herself first seen in The Small Rain. Interesting tidbit: this novel was published 37 years after The Small Rain, so clearly L'Engle's style and subject had matured, but Katherine's character still holds closely to what it had first been in the original.

L'Engle's writing kept me turning these pages -- some of her favourite themes -- music, religion, talent, marriage -- reappear in this story. Katherine, a world famous pianist, has returned to New York City to retire at age 70. She has spent most of her life in Europe, and is readjusting both to being back in America, and to no longer performing concerts. She is a bit of a prickly character, and we learn more about her as the narrative moves back and forth between her present experiences and her memories. I liked this technique, as it gave depth to the story, and gently wove connections between Katherine and all the new people she was becoming acquainted with. Katherine's life has had many startling moments, as she and her husband had been caught up in the Nazi occupation of France, something that coloured her life forever after. She's also experienced the dreadful loss of a child.

Upon returning to America, Katherine re-encounters her old friend Felix, who is now (shockingly) a retired Episcopalian bishop. Through him, she becomes involved in the life of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and agrees to give a benefit concert. But life in the Cathedral isn't as serene as one might expect. There are many problems, many difficulties, with the cathedral being broken into, obscene phone calls to various people, messed-up people who are intimately involved with this small community and more. The plot is quite involved, and becomes rather soap opera-like (perhaps all those years of L'Engle's husband acting in a soap affected her writing!) It is very dramatic and serious, with a multitude of characters who have dark secrets, hidden pasts, jealousies, moral lapses, tragedy -- and  also exceptional talents.

I enjoyed reading this for many reasons. L'Engle creates characters who live in a milieu where artistic talent, and hard work in the service of such talent, is expected. The bishops and canons and deans and nuns around the cathedral are normal people, with problems of their own; none are paragons of religious perfection. This was published in 1982, and it has a strong sense of New York in the 70's, when the streets were dangerous, and dirty, and power outages were common, and social interactions were still counter-cultural in some ways. Sex, and all of its permutations, are a strong theme as well; the characters all have experiences shaping their lives, ranging from marital infidelities to celibacy.

Along with that come some of the problems with this book. There are a number of gay or bisexual characters in this book, and they are nearly all shown as troubled, selfish, or unhappy. None of them can possibly have a positive outlook, even though Katherine states rather coldly in response to one character, “I don’t wish to be defined by gender or genitals. I am a pianist.” It does tie in with the era of the story, but is still a bit off-putting. There are also depictions of some characters that seem more caricature than portrait, notably the cook Mrs. Gomez and her children. I wasn't fully satisfied with the conclusion; it did feel like one of the characters' part in the story was not being actively concluded -- and her actions were such that I wanted a strong finish to her ability to affect others.

Nonetheless, L'Engle has plenty of thoughtful elements and quotable bits in this book. I love the way that she takes the idea of art seriously in all of her work, how there are successful, accomplished musicians, writers, and so on in her books, to whom art matters. I've always thought that her bookish, musical families were interesting and there are many such characters here. It's an interesting read and has a lot to think over. Mixed in with the dramatic plot are many issues that deserve consideration, and I would hope that the 70's vibe doesn't discourage readers from giving it a try.


  1. I can't tell you how much I have loved L'Engle's work; quite often in my life she had just the right word for a specific ache I was suffering under. I've forgotten about A Severed Wasp, and reading your review triggered no memory though I know I've read everything she wrote. I'll have to revisit this one.

    1. I also really love her work, and was surprised to realize I'd never read this one. I have one or two left unread now.

  2. I always thought I had read all of L'Engle's works, but I found two novels that I haven't. I sort of hold on to them until the right moment.... Maybe in 2015 she should be my author project. I haven't read books like this one in years.

  3. This isn't one of hers that I recognize, but I find your thoughts on it intriguing. The way that all of her works interweave truly thrills me, although I've not spent much time unravelling those connections. As a girl, my favourie realistic novel of hers was definitely Meet the Austins, and when I reread a couple of years ago, I was surprised just HOW bookish it seemed. No wonder it was a favourite!


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