The Joys of Love by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
From the Spring 2011 library book sale:
Well, this was a surprise. A new Madeleine L’Engle book? Now there’s dedication. Not even death could stop her writing!
It turns out The Joys of Love was one of the first novels she wrote, back in the 1940s, but it was never published. She shared it with her granddaughters when they were young and they arranged for it to be published posthumously.
The story is based on MLE’s experiences working in the theater as a young woman. The protagonist is Elizabeth “Liz” Jerrold, who is 20 years old and has just graduated from college. Although this was published by Farrar Straus Giroux books for young readers and is probably classified as young adult, it occurred to me that it fits right into the “New Adult” category some publishers are currently trying to make happen. She always was ahead of her time 🙂
It’s August 1946. The setting is a summer theater somewhere on the east coast, near New York City.
Liz’s first love is acting, but her Aunt Harriet (her guardian after her father died) disapproved. Harriet promised that if Liz majored in chemistry (chemistry! I wish more had been done with this) and graduated with honors, she could work at a summer theater. Liz graduates cum laude.
She finagles a scholarship to work as an apprentice* actor, but she still must pay $20/week** room-and-board. Because she doesn’t have any money of her own, Liz is dependent on her Aunt Harriet to pay her room-and-board.
*This position is kind of like an internship, but most apprentices pay for the privilege. So in some ways it’s more like a summer class/workshop that takes place in the real world. At any rate, it’s full-time and doesn’t leave any time for Liz to get a second (paying) job.
**Sidenote: this is not cheap! I did a conversion and apparently this is equivalent to $236.12 in today’s dollars, which is pretty spendy for a bed in a room shared with 3 other people and meals that leave them perpetually hungry.
Liz is infatuated with Kurt, the director, and bffs with Ben, another scholarship apprentice. Kurt, naturally, is a player who’s more interested in one night stands in his dressing room than having a girlfriend. Ben, naturally, would prefer Liz was his girlfriend rather than his bff. Liz is oblivious to Kurt’s fickleness and Ben’s true feelings. Everyone else is not.
The scholarship apprentices are portrayed as serious about acting; the paying apprentices less so.
The inciting incident is Aunt Harriet changing her mind about letting Liz spend the summer doing theater and ordering her to come home. Of course, Liz is an adult and she doesn’t have to do what Harriet says, but she also doesn’t have the $20/week she needs to pay her room-and-board.
It’s not the most original story ever, and modern readers might find Liz a little innocent/naive for a college graduate, but the setting and atmosphere are well done.
I couldn’t help comparing The Joys of Love to Ilsa, the second novel MLE published, which was written around the same time. Ilsa took place over many years and meandered all over the place with a huge cast of characters and various soapy plot developments. In contrast, TJoL is fairly tightly written. The focus is on a small core group of characters and the entire story takes place over a weekend. (In keeping with the theater theme, the chapters are designated as acts: Act I Friday; Act II Saturday; Act III Sunday; Act IV Monday.) I think The Joys of Love is the better story.
Speaking of Ilsa, perhaps the biggest surprise reading TJoL was that Ilsa herself appears in it. It’s in flashback, when Liz recalls going to her mother’s funeral. Her mother, Anna, spent her final months living at Ilsa’s boarding house. Her propensity for crossover characters has always been one of my favorite things about MLE’s writing, so that was awesome.