"It was a dark and stormy night…"
A Wrinkle in Time does begin with exactly that line, perhaps the most mocked opening line in literary history and certainly the most famous, courtesy of Snoopy's eternally-rejected novel (and originally from the not-quite-as-bad-as-his-rep Edward Bulwer-Lytton).
But for A Wrinkle in Time, it's the perfect opening line and helps set the stage, as well as foreshadowing the story to come; for there is indeed a dark and stormy time ahead for Meg Murry, high-school student (about thirteen) who just can't seem to fit in, with the typical problems of a girl just starting the passage to adulthood, and others as well. Most prominently, her father vanished a few years before and the rumors in the town are not kind about the reason.
But all of that will soon seem small and inconsequential, because there are far stranger and more frightening things happening. Meg's youngest brother, Charles Wallace, has met up with three strange people he calls "Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which", and they have a very pointed interest in Charles Wallace and his family. Mrs. Whatsit drops by during the storm, and seems a scatterbrained, eccentric old woman… until she says to Meg's mother, "… there is such a thing as a tesseract."
Following this setup and that enigmatic line, the novel skips to the next day and introduces the third major character Calvin O'Keefe: only a year older than Meg but two grades ahead, handsome, popular, tall… and actually feeling as much alone as Meg in many ways, hiding his true self from most of the world. The three children feel a strange connection between them. Together they visit the house where Mrs. Whatsit is supposed to live – a house with very witch-like trappings indeed. After a strange interview with the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit and her classics-quoting friend Mrs. Who which implies that they know something about Meg's father, the three return to the Murry home. But scarcely have they gotten back when Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who appear, with the much more frightening and formidable Mrs. Which, to take them on a quest to retrieve their father from an impossibly distant and dangerous world.
I just recently re-read A Wrinkle in Time as it was a book requested by my son Gabriel for his bedtime story. This was in a way fortunate since I had, not long ago, finished reading Support Your Local Wizard (omnibus of the first three Young Wizards novels by Diane Duane), which I wrote about in an earlier On My Shelves post.
This confirmed that there are, indeed, some interesting parallels between the books. There are three young protagonists in both (though the third doesn't take significant part in Duane's Young Wizards series until later in the second book); the two older protagonists become romantically involved; though they are young, they are considered crucial in the battle against evil; the powerscale implied or shown by the books can be immense; and there is some religious imagery in both.
However, A Wrinkle in Time is distinctly different in other ways. The religious overtones are clearer, and more overtly Christian in their depiction, with some direct statements of the involvement of "God" in events. While not a pure Christian tale like The Chronicles of Narnia, it's still a noticeable component of the book.
A Wrinkle in Time is also written in a more lyrical fashion. The Young Wizards books are written in a straightforward and … realistic, so to speak, fashion. Magic is a science, the workings of the world are rational, and even the most fantastic things are still treated as being as real and tangible in the same way a car might be. By contrast, A Wrinkle in Time often uses small turns of phrase to evoke emotion and mystery, and depicts even "scientific" powers with an aura of the numinous. L'Engle's prose style is capable of triggering powerful emotional reactions; even today, almost forty years after I first read it, I found I could not read "WWWWEEEEEE AARRRRRREEE HEEEEEEEEEERRREEE!" without feeling a chill and the prickle of goosebumps across my body.
At the same time, I had to come to the reluctant conclusion that, in some important ways, A Wrinkle in Time is considerably the lesser work when compared to many other books, including the Young Wizards series.
This is primarily due to the protagonist Meg Murry. As a character, she has great potential but is not allowed by the story to show it or, in most cases, to act. Viewed in coldly objective terms, Meg's major interactions consist of (A) demanding to see her father or know where he is, (B) being stubborn or sulky, wondering why people aren't doing something NOW, (C) putting herself down, and a bit later (D) taking her frustration out on those around her. Meg doesn't take much of an active role in the book at all. The most heroic and active thing she does is work up the courage to return to confront IT. But that actual confrontation turns out to boil down to (spoilers ROT-13d just in case anyone hasn't read the book and wants to) ure gryyvat Puneyrf Jnyynpr gung fur ybirf uvz naq sbphfvat cheryl ba gung rzbgvba.
The other characters all are more active and try more to control their own course; Meg is generally dragged from point to point, and is also shown to be more vulnerable to their adversaries. This is disappointing, especially after the Young Wizards series where all three protagonists are inventive, active participants in their destinies.
This isn't of course to say A Wrinkle in Time is a bad book; as I said, it has many things to recommend it, and I can certainly see why it has remained on reading lists for all these years. Yet it is, sadly, not quite as good as I had initially recalled, or quite as worthy of accolades as some others.
Still, I cannot help but be haunted – in a good way – by the images of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and sometimes wonder, when I hear the thunder roar and the rain come down, what I might find in that old deserted house down the road…