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The Polly O'Keefe Quartet: The Arm of the Starfish / Dragons in the Waters / A House Like a Lotus / An Acceptable Time

af Madeleine L'Engle

Andre forfattere: Leonard S. Marcus (Redaktør)

Serier: O'Keefe Family (1-4), Kairos (5-8)

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1062261,615 (4.13)2
This second volume gathers the final four Kairos novels, in which Meg and Calvin's daughter Polly takes center stage. In The Arm of the Starfish, Polly disappears, and Calvin's research assistant is implicated in her kidnapping. In Dragons in the Waters, Polly and her brother Charles are on a steamer bound for Venezuela when they help solve a murder connected to a stolen portrait of Simon Bolivar. Polly receives an education in different kinds of love in A House Like a Lotus. And in An Acceptable Time, Polly is lured through a tesseract by a friend who may be hoping to sacrifice Polly in order to save himself.… (mere)
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The Arm of the Starfish (1965)
Though I never would have read it otherwise, I think packing this novel as part of "The Polly O'Keefe Quartet" does it a disservice, because it is not remotely a Polly O'Keefe novel. This was clearly not intended as the start of a series about Polly, nor even really thought of as a continuation of a series about Meg and Calvin.

Rather, I feel like L'Engle wanted to write about book about a boy named Adam Eddington and needed a marine biologist character, and thought to herself, "What if the marine biologist was Calvin from my other book? It would be neat to see what Calvin and Meg were up to." So it's more like a fun cameo for people who read A Wrinkle in Time than anything else. (I can't find it now, but while reading these books I came across a tweet that went something like, "Forget the MCU, I only want the MLCU: The Madeleine L'Engle Cinematic Universe." Her books really do use that modern comic book–style of storytelling where it's like, why invent a new character when you can cross things over by including an old one?)

If you approach Arm of the Starfish that way, it's a fine book if not a great one. I really like the beginning, actually. Adam is a young man discovering himself and the world when he's thrust into a complicated situation beyond his control. While Wrinkle in Time is science fantasy, Arm of the Starfish is sf thriller: the maguffin is the idea that human could regenerate limbs akin to starfish, but that's not directly relevant to the story. The story, rather, is about learning how to do the right thing even when the right thing is difficult and dangerous. L'Engle keeps you on your toes at first, but I did find that as the novel went out, it slowed down for me. The thriller elements begin to feel a bit contrived, and Adam's uncertainty becomes harder to believe in.

As I read these novels, I read Mari Ness's thoughts at the Madeleine L'Engle Reread over on Tor.com; she was particularly helpful for discussing the many other L'Engle novels that connect to the so-called "Kairos" ones. I really enjoy Ness's thoughts on the Oz novels (that I am reading with my son), but found her thoughts on Arm of the Starfish a bit frustrating. I can see that Arm would be an annoying book if you read it as the next novel after A Swiftly Tilting Planet: Polly isn't really a focal character, Meg isn't even directly called "Meg." But in its original context (I read it in publication order, after Wrinkle), that's clearly just not what it's trying to be. Ness even acknowledges this, but it still seems to taint her reading of the book. She complains that Polly is not a good protagonist character... but Polly clearly was not designed to be a protagonist character. Despite the collection I read this in, it's not a Polly O'Keefe novel, it's an Adam Eddington novel with a supporting character named Polly O'Keefe.

Similarly, Ness complains, "This book contains no hint that two of its major adult characters traveled through time and space." But this is typical for L'Engle, and for the era—we're long, long before YA series become de rigeur, and each of L'Engle's Murray/O'Keefe books, especially the earlier ones, is clearly designed to work as a standalone, to the extent that they are all possible to read and not know that other books about these characters even exist. Yes, there's no hint of what Meg and Calvin did here... but there's also no hint that they previously traveled through time and space in A Wind in the Door, the second book in their actual series!

Something that came to fascinate me about these books is the (very wonky) chronology. I think A Wrinkle in Time has nothing that would lead us to believe it's not set when it was written, in the 1960s. Arm of the Starfish must be set a generation later, and indeed, there's a small comment from Calvin (highlighted by editor Leonard Marcus) about how back in the 1960s scientists created human fetuses in a test tube, but "their development went awry" and they became deformed monstrosities. Marcus points out that there were no "test tube babies" when this book was published; IVF first succeeded in 1978. Other than that, there's no attempt at futurism from L'Engle here, but the book must take place sometime after the 1960s.

Dragons in the Waters (1976)
Like Arm of the Starfish, this is not a Polly O'Keefe book, just a book that has Polly O'Keefe in it, even if she does get some viewpoint scenes, and we also learn a bit about her little brother Charles, too.

It's a Simon Renier novel. Simon is, like Adam, a young man on the cusp of adulthood trying to figure out his place in the world. The novel has a somewhat complicated plot; it takes place on a freighter heading to Venezuela, which has taken on passengers that include Simon, his cousin, Calvin and his two oldest kids, a pair older women academics, and some others besides. There are shenanigans on board (a missing portrait, an attempted murder, and eventually an actual murder), and we follow mostly Simon.

What I liked was the tone. Simon is young but has lived a melancholy life; he's an orphan who grew up with an elderly great-aunt in a decaying house. That sense of melancholy pervades the novel. We occasionally cut to the other characters, and they all have their reasons to feel melancholy.

On the other hand, though, the novel eventually begins to enter a holding pattern. The cuts to those characters start to feel repetitive. Yes, they all feel sad about their lives, I get it. The plot on the ship seems to move as slowly as the ship itself. Eventually, it gets where they are going, and things heat up again, but as Simon embraces his destiny among the natives of Venezuela, it gets a bit wacky. Yes, it's a book about dealing with and accounting for past mistakes, but I'm not persuaded that this needed to happen generationally. This is a theme L'Engle will come back to in her next Kairos book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

A House Like a Lotus (1984)
Above, I talked about how the first two "Polly O'Keefe novels" are anything but; A House Like a Lotus is the real first Polly O'Keefe novel. Narrated in the first person, it tells two parallel stories, one about Polly's friendship with an older woman, and one set later in Greece, as Polly enters into a romance and tries to come to terms with what happened to her. I've seen some complaints that this isn't the same Polly that we got in earlier novels... but, you know, she was a preteen in those, and here she's in high school, with all the changes in confidence that can bring. (Especially when, like Polly, you've gone from being part of your weird family's homeschool enclave to American public high school.) Unlike all these other novels, it basically has no sfnal elements: it's a pretty realist coming-of-age story.

I enjoyed it. As she was with Meg in A Wind in the Door, L'Engle is good at capturing the difficulties of growing up. The use of the first person is effective. I think as a teenager, especially if I was a girl, I might have found this captivating, but it works well enough—probably my favorite of the four Polly novels.

An Acceptable Time (1989)
In some editions, An Acceptable Time is published as the fifth "Time Quintet" novel. This is clearly a bogus attempt to market the book by tying it into the more popular Meg novels;* though it returns to their setting and includes some of their features and characters, it's a Polly novel through and through, following up on the events of House Like a Lotus. Why would anyone care about this book without that one? I have read a lot of reviews from people who bounced off it, and definitely part of the reason is that the publishers try to get you to read it without the three books that come before it!

Anyway, this is a lot like Many Waters in that it's slow and dull and nothing much seems to be at stake for Polly. I feel like the return of Polly to the location of the Meg novels ought to feel significant, but it doesn't really. The "series," such as it was, ends with a fizzle.

Also note that the book refers to the present day of Polly as the twentieth century, but as I discussed in my last post, the evidence would seem to indicate that A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet are set in the twenty-first century, much less this book a generation later!

* That said, my wife's edition of An Acceptable Time (Laurel-Leaf, with a Cliff Nielsen cover) has a 1997 introduction by L'Engle where she calls it part of the "Time Quartet." Was she counting Acceptable Time but not counting Many Waters? I've never seen that particular configuration anywhere else. It does seem so, because when she lists the characters, she focuses on Meg, Charles Wallace, Polly, and Zachary, but doesn't mention Sandy and Dennys.
  Stevil2001 | Feb 3, 2023 |
LOA's edition of Ms L'Engle's 2nd quartet which features Polly O'Keefe, Meg's daughter is again a treasure to read. A mixture of religion, philosophy, & scientific questions which permeate much of this work is also sprinkled with adventure & humor. Time & space remains in the background whether in the past or in the present though at times inserts itself in shocking ways for the main character Polly. Yet there is still life to be lived in spite of the unanswerable questions & the lessons Polly discovers for herself. This edition includes 3 speeches of Ms L'Engle. ( )
  walterhistory | Jul 6, 2020 |
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This second volume gathers the final four Kairos novels, in which Meg and Calvin's daughter Polly takes center stage. In The Arm of the Starfish, Polly disappears, and Calvin's research assistant is implicated in her kidnapping. In Dragons in the Waters, Polly and her brother Charles are on a steamer bound for Venezuela when they help solve a murder connected to a stolen portrait of Simon Bolivar. Polly receives an education in different kinds of love in A House Like a Lotus. And in An Acceptable Time, Polly is lured through a tesseract by a friend who may be hoping to sacrifice Polly in order to save himself.

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