Madeleine L’Engle is not afraid to tackle the tough themes—death, sex, love, responsibility, forgiveness, trust. A House Like a Lotus touches on all these, both in its story line and in the discussions between characters. At one point, Polly muses that she is “far more comfortable with ideas than with ordinary social conversation,” and A House Like a Lotus is full of conversations about ideas. It is also a coming-of-age novel, in which Polly leaves the self-centeredness of childhood to learn to understand and have compassion for other people.
Max begins this growing-up process for Polly, helping her to see how a teacher whom Polly dislikes may actually be lonely and unfulfilled and, simple as it may seem, that her parents are separate individuals, with strengths and weaknesses of their own. Polly needs to learn that “all human beings betray each other and that we are going to be let down even by those we most trust.” The trick that the mature person has is to be able to forgive the betrayal and view the betrayer with compassion. Polly ends up learning this lesson the hard way: Max’s attempt to seduce her betrays their friendship in the most taboo way possible, since Max is a lesbian and regards Polly as the child she did not have. Polly must learn to look beyond this incident to the person Max really is and to have compassion for the pain and fear that drove Max to her uncharacteristic actions.
A House Like a Lotus also tackles the question of what love is: the love between...
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Readers of Madeleine L’Engle’s other works, both for children and adults, will recognize many of the characters in A House Like a Lotus. Polly features in three other novels: The Arm of the Starfish (1965), Dragons in the Waters (1976), and An Acceptable Time (1989). Polly’s parents, Calvin and Meg O’Keefe, were the main characters in L’Engle’s Newbery Medal-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962). Zachary Gray also appears in An Acceptable Time and in two of L’Engle’s novels about another teenage protagonist, Vicky Austin. Several of the more minor characters also feature in previous novels. This recurrence is evidence of L’Engle’s belief that people and events are interconnected and interdependent; what one person does, or does not do, affects others in ways that perhaps can neither be explained nor even imagined, but that are nevertheless crucially important.
Readers will also recognize many of the themes that recur in L’Engle’s work. One of her first books for children, And Both Were Young (republished 1983), attempted to deal with the death of a parent and had to be rewritten at the publisher’s request because it was believed that the subject was too difficult or upsetting for young people. Her novel A Ring of Endless Light (1980), a Newbery Honor Book, also deals with death in a sensitive way. What L’Engle is really concerned with, however, is life and how to live it most fully. Max, despite her illness and impending death, is vibrant, and she tells Polly that “no one is too insignificant to make a difference. Whenever you get the chance, choose life.” L’Engle is convinced of the importance of each individual in the scheme of things, and her novels are concerned with the idea of interdependence—what one person chooses to do makes a difference and can affect the entire universe.