A LIVE COAL IN THE SEA by Madeleine L'Engle


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Explosive family secrets are defused by love, wisdom, and a foreshadowed revelation, in this latest intricately plotted adult novel by L'Engle (Certain Women, 1992, etc.). When granddaughter Raft asks Camilla whether she really is her grandmother, Camilla (a distinguished astronomer) knows it's time to tell the truth. But the truth is complex; the telling will take time. Raffi's visits to hear the story alternate with Camilla's own memories and the emotions they arouse. The young Camilla Dickinson, upset by her philandering mother Rose's affair with Camilla's favorite professor, Red Grange, had been comforted by her college's Episcopalian chaplain, Mac Xanthakos. The two soon fell in love, but Mac had his own problems and ran off to Kenya to do missionary work. After he returned, they became lovers, and Camilla, along with Mac's wise, loving parents Olivia and Art, helped him wrestle with the demons that had been driving him. Camilla and Mac married and then moved to Georgia, where Camilla continued her studies while trying to be the model rector's wife. Their happiness, though, was brief: First, Rose, in Paris with long-suffering husband Rafferty Dickinson, announced she was pregnant; then, when Camilla herself was pregnant, Rose was killed in an accident, leaving behind baby Artaxias--Taxi--who turned out not to be Dickinson's son after all. Camilla and Mac raise Taxi as their own, along with their own daughter, Frankie, but poor Taxi, who grows up to be a soap-opera star, must endure profoundly troubling questions about his identity before Camilla can finally answer Raft's question. The answer is a long foreshadowed revelation--a "mercy, a live coal that did not need to be dropped into the sea, but could flame quietly, and by which they could warm themselves." A fast-paced story that, though weighted with the usual L'Engle explorations of faith and science, seems ultimately thin and contrived.
Pub Date: May 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-374-18989-7
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1996


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