“But all love is only once, is always and forever singular.” – p 233
Every time I read a Madeleine L’Engle book, I feel compelled to immediately go out and buy it. It’s frustrating that most people only associate L’Engle with the Time Quartet and are never even aware that she wrote stand-alone novels – some of them much better than the Time Quartet as they struggle more universal issues.
“Violet would not be back until evening, and evening was lost in the far reaches of time. Evening, not having been yet, was further away than the three hundred yearas past when Sister Mariana and the other nuns had filled this convent with life.” – p 30
This book tackles that one universal emotion we as a race revere the most – love. The basic plot of the novel is split in two. The modern day story of Charlotte Napier, who has run away from her husband after he has hurt her deeply. Charlotte has, oddly enough, run to Portugal to her mother-in-law’s house in an attempt to understand what’s happened to her marriage and her life. While there, Charlotte stumbles across a book of love letters – which introduces the second plot. Sister Mariana is a nun who lived in Beja, Portugal during the seventeenth century and has become involved with a French officer. The letters of passion and anguish strike a sore spot in Charlotte’s heart and although there are only five of them, she reads them and talks with those who are studying Mariana in hopes of a chance at healing.
“Strength: it was this that had driven Charlotte to Beja in the dead of winter to see violent Violet whose violence was turned to gentleness by the structure of her music, who could play chaos into order. Who could perhaps even now take all the senselessness with which Charlotte was darkened, and play it into meaning.” – p 163
While at first I struggled with reconciling Mariana and Charlotte’s stories, or even finding a point to the entire novel which I knew L’Engle would have – the book was still completely inescapable. I could not put the book away, there was always one more section I felt I needed to read. If you’ve ever read a L’Engle story, you won’t find this surprising.
“You made me, God. You made me this way. This is the way I am. If you want me to change you’ll have to help me. I can’t do it by myself.” – p 171
One of the wonderful things about this story, is that “Letters of a Portuguese Nun” is a real book, Mariana Alcoforado was a real person, and while there is speculation that she is, indeed, the author, L’Engle’s fictionalization of Mariana’s story could be very close to what actually happened. So even if you don’t allow Charlotte’s story to affect you, it’s hard not let Mariana’s.
“We take our bodies so for granted that we’re hardly aware of them, of what extraordinary means of life they are.” – p 235
As with most of L’Engle’s novels, (as I mentioned earlier) it’s sometimes hard to find a point to the story when you first begin. You know the author is trying to say something, you may just have a hard time grasping what it is. My favorite L’Engle novel is “Certain Women” but this book contains a very similar and equally strong punch when you near the end and she begins to resolve to two stories and reveal the outcome and lessons learned. If you have never read one of this wonderful woman’s novels, I strongly urge you to remedy that problem.
“This strange world in which you and I try to serve God often seems to have little meaning. Without Him it would have no meaning at all.” – p 298
This book was initially published in 1966 by Madeleine L’Engle and was revised by the author in 2000. I read the pre-revised version.