Camilla By Madeleine L’Engle

Her life is filled with confusion. Will it ever make sense?

In the 5+ years of this blog’s existence, this has to rate as the most difficult and frustrating book I’ve had to write about. Not because it isn’t good or I didn’t like it (it is and I do). And not because I never really warmed to Madeleine L’Engle’s combination of fantasy, Jesus and math as a young reader (…or as an old one). This is one of those books where not much happens, and yet it is completely satisfying in its not-much-happening… until we sideline the heroine for the tale of woe that is her romantic interest who ISN’T EVEN THAT GREAT, CAMILLA!

The Plot: The (misleading) back cover copy on Dell’s 1982 reissue reads in part:

Then she meets Frank, her best friend’s brother, who helps her to feel that she is not alone. Can Camilla learn to accept her parents for what they are?

Which may be the most misleading summary of a plot I’ve ever read, unless the implied answer to that question is “No, because they’re terrible.”

(Better is the Saturday Review quote below the summary which makes the comparison to The Catcher in the Rye, as well as pointing out that “Camilla has more innate strength and stability than Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.” In fact, the characters would be right at home in Norma Klein’s oeuvre twenty years later.)

The action takes place over a few weeks in New York City sometime after World War II (readers picking up this version when it was published in 1965 might be startled by the number of 27 year old WW II vets if they were expecting a contemporary setting), after 15 year old upper east side resident Camilla Dickinson has been aggressively befriended by Luisa Rowan, a schoolmate with bohemian (of course) parents who live in Greenwich Village (duh).

Camilla and Luisa are both Very Serious Young People: the type that spends afternoons doing their private-school homework at the Metropolitan Museum or listening to classical music or discussing their future careers in the sciences (Camilla is planning on becoming an astronomer, Luisa a Freudian psychoanalyst). But I hesitate to consider them soulmates or bosom friends or BFFs, because Luisa is an extremely difficult personality: possessive, intrusive (yet secretive), needy, jealous and generally overbearing.

The tone is set upon their initial meeting (a year prior to the start of the story) when Luisa interrupts Camilla’s history homework at the Met, announcing:

“You know what, Camilla Dickinson? I’ve been thinking and I’ve decided that I like you better than anyone else in school.”

After asking Camilla for a frank assessment of her parents, she comes to this conclusion:

“You’re very lucky. You’re one of those people who’s a daughter and you mother and father are parents; but Frank and I and my mother and father are all separate people and we’re in eternal conflict. Do you know, Camilla Dickinson, you’re the kind of person that it’s easy to talk to. I don’t ever talk to people like this. Would you be my friend? I do so need to have a friend.”

But Camilla’s home life isn’t as rosy as Luisa’s assessment. For one thing, as the book opens, Camilla is finally realizing that she can no longer deny that her mother is having an affair with a French gigolo named Jacques. This corresponds with workaholic-architect Mr. Dickinson also coming to this realization.

The aftermath of this revelation (which no speaks of!) (!!!) might be the most low-key horrifying depiction of parents in YA, as the Dickinsons (and also Jacques) (!!!) passive-aggressively snipe, threaten and emotionally blackmail Camilla in an attempt to win her over to their own “side”, culminating is her mother’s unsuccessful suicide attempt (as well as the less-dramatic revelation that Mr. Dickinson has been in love with his wife’s sister, like, forever).

No wonder Camilla is spending as much time away from home as she can manage. Not that the Rowan household is doing much better: Luisa’s parents are constantly at each other throats, mainly because her father’s non-specific work at a non-specific firm doesn’t pay as well as Mrs. Rowan’s job as a magazine editor, which makes her angry, drunk, and emasculating. Also Luisa’s 17 year old brother, Frank, has just been kicked out of boarding school and has returned to New York City.

While light on action, the family-and-friendship dynamics between Camilla and the other characters is so well done, Frank’s arrival on the scene becomes a drag, and a perfectly good coming-of-age story suddenly becomes a sidebar about why Frank was kicked out of boarding school (his best friend shot accidentally shot himself) and all of the interesting people Frank knows in the Village that he’s going introduce Camilla to so they can impart many important lessons upon her, because she is a girl who knows nothing about life. I guess? Up until this point Camilla seemed to be learning many important lessons about how life can be terrible without benefit of male guidance.

Does it sound like I resent Frank? I resent Frank. Mostly because he acts like he’s so superior to all of the other adults in the world, but indulges in the same passive-aggressive manipulations that all of the other adults in book do, including taking Camilla on a date to a restaurant owned by the father of one of his other girlfriends, who has the most excellent name of Pompilia Riccioli, whom I would much rather have a sidebar about.

But instead we get 100 pages of Frank being moody. This is how he responds to Camilla telling him to get a hot dog if he is hungry:

“Me, you think I could eat?” Frank turned on me and his voice was suddenly savage. “You think I could eat when the minute you’re born you’re condemned to die? When thousands of people are dying every minute before they’ve even had a chance to begin? Death isn’t fair. It’s – it’s a denial of life! How can we be given life when we’re given death at the same time? Death isn’t fair,” Frank cried again, his voice soaring and cracking with rage. “I resent death! I resent it with every bone in my body! And you think- you think I could eat!”

Jesus, Frank!

It is genuinely difficult to tell what L’Engle is going for with the Camilla-Frank relationship. Is he really supposed to be a tragic, romantic hero who just feels everything SO! MUCH! HARDER! THAN! EVERYONE! ELSE!

Or is he a subversion of the tragic-romantic hero, a temperamental man-baby that Camilla might have a dalliance with, but is already starting to outgrow?

A clue might be in the form of David, a 27 year old World War II vet and double-amputee, one of the many colorful and tragic characters that Frank introduces to Camilla and take it upon themselves to teach her many lessons about how life is hard. Camilla eventually has her first kiss not with Frank, but with David, and the experience is both more and less:

I had expected him to kiss me on the forehead or on the cheek; but he put his lips against mine, lightly at first, and then with increasing pressure. Again the sift warmth flowed over and through my body. It wasn’t until he took his lips away that I thought suddenly, I have been kissed. This is my first kiss. And Frank didn’t give it to me.

And finally, at the end, Camilla goes to the Rowan house one Monday morning after having been stood up by Frank the previous afternoon, only to find that the Rowans are divorcing and Frank and his father have left for Cincinnati; adding insult to injury, Frank seems to have found the time to inform and say his good-bye to everyone except Camilla.

The blow is softened somewhat by Luisa, who delivers a letter to Camilla from Frank, explaining:

…I can’t say good-bye to you. Do you know why? You’ll just have to know. I can’t write what I feel either. You’ll just have to know that too.

The book ends with Camilla looking up at the night sky, naming the stars in the constellations:

I told myself these facts and the tears retreated and I knew that I would not have to cry.

So, I’m sure she’s going to be fine.

Odds & Ends Department: This is a revised version of L’Engle’s early novel, Camilla Dickinson, but I am not sure how much of a difference there is between the two versions. Has anybody read both?

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4 Responses to Camilla By Madeleine L’Engle

  1. michele says:

    I read both but the only thing I remember is Luisa deliberately smashing her hand during a fight with Camilla in order to compose herself. I tried that on myself once, but alas, it did not work.

    The New Yorker has a terrific write up about L’Engle from 2004 (available online.) She was a complicated woman with a rich fantasy life. She seems to have based the character of Maggie (the out of control foster kid in Meet the Austins) on her adopted daughter Maria, and the precocious Rob on her son Bion (who died of alcoholism in his 40s). Judging by that, I wonder if Frank is partially based on her husband Hugh Franklin.

  2. There was a movie of this, just a few years ago. It could have been better, but it was good overall.

    Positives: — They streamlined the story. David was left out entirely, and a lot of other scenes were tightened up.
    — Much more upbeat ending. Camilla negotiates with her parents, and they agree to send her to a math-and-science school where she learns about astronomy, instead of the Swiss nunnery they’d originally planned. Also, it appears that she and Frank write to each other and plan to meet on holidays.
    — Frank doesn’t have that outburst! The rest of the scene is the same, with them on the ferry, talking about Life, and the wind taking Camilla’s hat, but they both laugh about that.
    — Excellent job with the sets, costumes and so forth, capturing the just-after-the-war atmosphere.
    — Good casting, especially Luisa. She’s still abrasive, but in a quirky-cute way, and she’s quirky-cute looking, too, not really “homely as a hedge fence” as Frank dismisses her. And it’s interesting to see Jacques objectively. IMHO, he’s the symptom, not the disease. (Also, Camilla confronts him at his office, not his apartment that shouts Gigolo.)

    Cons: — All the Dickinsons are blond, which IMO, gives them a wrong dynamic. Much is made, in the novel, of Camilla tooking like her father, with jet-black hair and green eyes, not her classically beautiful blonde, blue-eyed mother. Having them look all the same undercuts what should be an obvious schism. That said, the actors play it right, even if they don’t look right.
    — Frank and Luisa’s parents are portrayed as comic drunks. Wrong: in the novel, Bill Rowan drank to self-medicate for his PTSD. Mona Rowan’s motivation is less clear: perhaps alcohol warms her as her emotionally absent husband does not; perhaps she has a drinking buddy or two outside the family, or maybe she’s just inclined that way. But they’re not supposed to be the Lockhorns, as they are in this.
    — There’s an utterly ridiculous scene with Camilla and co. creating a romantic dinner for Raff and Rose. Which, of course, ends on a sour note, but something so sitcommy should not have happened in the first place.

    That’s all I can think of ATM. If you like the novel, it’s worth seeing.

    • mondomolly says:

      Oh wow, thanks for the summary of the movie! I will definitely have to seek it out (I think I noted in passing that one had been made, then immediately forgot about it!) I’m really curious, because so much of the conflict is so internalized… it really seems like it would be like trying to adapt Catcher in the Rye! I’ll definitely check it out!

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