July 23, 2006

Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage

Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L'Engle
Began on 6/23/06
Finished on 7/20/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very good)

To say Madeleine L’Engle is a prolific author would be quite an understatement. To date, she’s written 16 young adult novels, 4 children’s books, 8 works of general fiction, 4 autobiographical works, 7 books of reflections on scripture, 6 books of prayers, 5 collections of poetry and 11 titles of special books, plays and short stories. In one of her most recent publications (Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life), she states:

"I have never served a work as I would like to, but I do try, with each book, to serve to the best of my ability, and this attempt at serving is the greatest privilege and the greatest joy that I know."

And what a joy it was for me to discover one of her autobiographical works, especially since I wasn’t terribly impressed with my first (and only) encounter with her writing (Newbery Award winner, A Wrinkle in Time) four years ago.

I don’t recall when or where I found my copy of Two-Part Invention, but it seems to me it was one of my many used book store acquisitions. I was probably drawn to the subject matter as well as the attractive line-drawing of Crosswicks (Madeleine and Hugh’s New England farmhouse), but as with most of my new book purchases, it wound up on a shelf, long forgotten until last month.

I read well over 50 pages and began to wonder if it was worth sticking with any longer. Not that it wasn’t well-written, but the prelude focused on Madeleine’s life after college, working as an understudy on Broadway while struggling with her new writing career. Lots of tidbits about the actors she worked with and her social life (including that of her attraction and fondness for actor Hugh Franklin). None of this was of much interest to me, so by the end of the 70-page prelude, I’d made the decision to abandon the book. However, as I was searching Amazon for a link for my blog entry, I came across several glowing reviews, causing me to wonder if I’d been too hasty to call it quits. How fortuitous! To think I would have missed such a wonderful, wonderful book!

L’Engle weaves past and present as she recalls her shared history with her husband while facing the heartbreaking challenge of watching him slowly give in to the ravages of bladder cancer (and all the subsequent health issues he faces). L’Engle writes with tremendous honesty and the love for her husband (and her God) shines through in spite of the constant fear and worry. After 40 years of marriage, she can’t help but feel immensely vulnerable, yet she conveys a sense of incredible courage in spite of the bleak prognosis.

Favorite Passages:

When I was a child the most terrible punishment my mother could give me was to forbid me to read or write for twenty-four hours, and I would beg her to spank me instead.

A love which depends solely on romance, on the combustion of two attracting chemistries, tends to fizzle out… A long-term marriage has to move beyond chemistry to compatibility, to friendship, to companionship. It is certainly not that passion disappears, but that it is conjoined with other ways of love.

Love of music, of sunsets and sea; a liking for the same kind of people; political opinions that are not radically divergent; a similar stance as we look at the stars and think of the marvelous strangeness of this universe – these are what build a marriage. And it is never to be taken for granted.

Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.

But the wonderful thing, whether we are together or apart, is to know that he is in the world, and that we belong together. And what I must learn is to love with all of me, giving all of me, and yet remain whole in myself. Any other kind of love is too demanding of the other; it takes, rather than gives. To love so completely that you lose yourself in another person is not good. You are giving a weight, not the sense of lightness and light that loving someone should give. To love wholly, generously, and yet retain the core that makes you you.

It is hard to keep a sense of proportion, a sense of humor, and yet I know that laughter is most necessary when things are difficult. Life on this planet in general is not very humorous. There is nothing funny about the disaster of the Challenger, or about Chernobyl, or the cutting down of the rain forests. There is nothing funny about cancer. But despite all the horror and tragedy there is still the possibility of genuine laughter.

Right now my vulnerability is on the outside of my skin. Small things bring sobs up to my throat, but thus far only when it has been all right, appropriate, to cry. I have slowly learned a lot about grief, and the right and proper expression of it. Wearing mourning in the old days was not such a bad idea, because it took into visible account the fact of death, which we now try to hide, so that it won’t embarrass others… We pull ourselves together when we need to. We do the things that have to be done. But we need to give ourselves time and place in which to mourn. This is strength, not weakness.

But grief still has to be worked through. It is like walking through water. Sometimes there are little waves lapping about my feet. Sometimes there is an enormous breaker that knocks me down. Sometimes there is a sudden and fierce squall. But I know that many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.

We are not good about admitting grief, we Americans. It is embarrassing. We turn away, afraid that it might happen to us. But it is part of life, and it has to be gone through.

My copy is now dog-eared and highlighted, and I plan to read it many, many more times. It’s one of the most inspiring works on marriage I’ve yet to read and I’m anxious to buy the remaining three titles in her Crosswicks Journal series. Brilliant writing!


  1. I love Madeleine L'Engle (sorry to hear you are not someone that liked A Wrinkle in Time. It is an acquired taste). Now I am going have to add this to my list of books I want to read by her...

  2. I may give A Wrinkle In Time another chance, now that I've read Two-Part Invention (and have a better feeling about the author). Every once in a while I come across a book that is highly regarded by so many and I wonder if my displeasure in the book was merely due to my personal situation at the time I read it. As I recall, we were in the middle of trying to sell our house in Fort Worth and my dh had already moved to Nebraska. I may not have been in the best frame of mind for any of the books I was reading back then!


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