“A Winter’s Love” by Madeleine L’Engle

Winter's Love
I read this book with conflicted feelings: on the one hand, I was impressed by what a talented and insightful writer L’Engle was even so early in her career, and on the other, compared with her later works, it’s clear here that L’Engle hadn’t quite hit her stride. What for another writer would be a magnum opus, is for L’Engle a mere test of the pen. Almost all the things that would make “A Wrinkle in Time” and later works so outstanding are present here, but still only in semi-developed form.

It’s the 1950s (the book was released in 1957) and the Bowen family is overwintering in the French Alps. It should have been a fun holiday while Courtney, the husband, is on sabbatical, but instead he has lost his teaching job and is trying to get some writing done while wrestling with the decision of whether or not to accept the one job offer he has received, and move the whole family from New York City to small-town Indiana. Meanwhile, Emily, the main viewpoint character, who is Courtney’s wife and more than ten years his junior, is wrestling with her own attraction to an old family friend, who is also overwintering with his teenage son in the same town. Everyone is trying to watch out for Gertrude, an American woman and a hero of the resistance, whose health was ruined in the camps.

The setting is marvelously realized, and feels both real and charmingly vintage. The characters bathe in a hip-bath in the kitchen, use hot water bottles instead of central heating, and only have one phone, which hangs from the wall. This may have been particularly striking to me because I originally thought this was a more recent release and I was struggling to place the period details, but in any case the book feels very naturally and authentically 50s, which is either a plus or a minus, depending on your point of view. WWII is still very much on everyone’s minds, with Gertrude and her camp tattoo, Madame Peridot’s history of collaborating with the occupiers, and the disagreement explodes between the young people over the discovery that one of them is technically Jewish. That particular facet of the story feels peculiarly quaint, and yet…not. The racism and prejudice the characters are trying to confront are still very much in evidence today, sixty years later.

The relationships within and between the characters are where L’Engle’s magic is most clearly evident. Everyone is conflicted, everyone is questing, everyone is well-intentioned and striving to understand the universe and their place in it. This could be tedious or preachy, but L’Engle makes everyone sympathetic and well-rounded, especially in the interactions between mothers and daughters. Although Emily and her daughter Virginia are not just early prototypes for Meg Murry of “A Wrinkle in Time” and her relationships with her own mother and then later with her daughter Poly, the richness and delicacy is already there, as is the emphasis on women as having thoughts, feelings, and stories of their own. I have to admit that I didn’t like Emily and Virginia *as much* as I did the protagonists of the later, YA books, and the plot lacks some of the same urgency, not to mention the presence of magic, but “A Winter’s Love” is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in L’Engle’s work, or anyone who just wants to curl up with something warm and read about a chilly winter and an impossible love in the Alps.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Buy links: Barnes and NobleAmazon

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