A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle
This might be Madeleine L’Engle’s most controversial book. It was published in 1984, a time when books for children and young adults didn’t always deal super frankly with issues of sexuality, coming-of-age, and sex. While Judy Blume’s Forever had been published, it was the exception, not the norm. And L’Engle’s frank focus on female sexuality is startling in its clarity and honesty.
Polly O’Keefe is now 16 years old, and she has been taken in as a mentee to wealthy artist Maximiliana Horne. Under Max’s tutelage, Polly learns about life, art, literature, and a variety of other things. Max arranges a trip to Greece, where Polly can serve as a diplomatic assistant at a convention. But before the trip, Polly learns a startling truth about Max and embarks on a foolhardy romantic quest. And then in Greece, she meets the charismatic and dangerous Zachary Grey. Blech. The less we say of him, the better.
I appreciate L’Engle’s frank discussion about sex and the emotional consequences of having sex before you’re ready or even properly informed, as well as the change from child to adult and your evolving relationship with your family when you become an adult. But at times, I experienced a bit of whiplash, because Polly is both an old soul in matters of intellect and deeply naïve about sex and sexuality. On that note, we have to talk about the sexual encounter that occurs in the book and the “crisis” that Polly experiences, because they both bugged me. SPOILERS, obviously.
Okay, if you’re still here, it’s your own fault. First things first: big old secret:
*Eventually, Polly puts two and two together and discovers that Max is a lesbian living with her partner. Gurl, I figured that out pretty quickly. Also, Max is dying of a mysterious incurable illness. One night Max gets a little too drunk and approaches Polly asking why she doesn’t trust her, or something along those lines. This is supposed to be read as a come-on, but I just didn’t buy it. Max is dying, she’s had an abusive past, and she’s drunk a little too much. She’s not trying to seduce Polly. At least, I didn’t read it that way. Polly’s running away just reads as emotionally immature, particularly because her parents knew about Max’s sexuality and health struggles. They would have been able to help her.
On to the next thing:
*Polly’s relationship with Queron Renier, aka Renny. It’s really just gross and uncomfortable, you guys. Polly is 16 and while she’s unbelievably smart, she’s still very childish about things like sex. Renny, however, is a hospital intern. Which means he’s past medical school or at least in the last stages of medical school. This puts him in his mid-twenties at youngest and possibly even late twenties. She contacts him when she runs away from Max and tells him not to tell her parents, so he takes care of her at his house AND THEN SEDUCES HER. And THEN, if that wasn’t bad enough, he scolds her and tells her that it must never happen again, despite the fact that HE SEDUCES HER AND INITIATES THE SEX.
Gross, Renny. You are the WORST. It is both bad judgment and poor taste on his part to seduce a 16-year-old girl who is not on birth control (he asks her about her cycle after, and I was like, DUDE TOO LATE, YOU PUT YOUR PENIS IN THERE.) and, most importantly, who is UNDERAGE. Polly is 16 and too naïve to know better. Renny is a 20-something man who does. UGH.
*Finally, let’s talk Zachary, but very briefly. I have lots more vitriol to unload in the next few books. He reappears in L’Engle’s books, and it’s painful. I’m not into bad boys, and Zachary is a whiny, self-indulgent, manipulative young man. Blech. His own stupid daredevil ways get him and Polly into trouble, and no one is bold enough to call him out on his crap. I have no sympathy for him.