Faith and Fiction Roundtable: Certain Women by Madeline L’Engle

Certain Women by Madeline L’Engle
Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins

David Wheaton has lived a long and interesting life as a well-respected American actor. He has been married eight times and has eleven children to show for it. But at 87 years old, David is on his death bed, and in his dying days he asks that his family members, most specifically his daughter Emma, surround him. The most prominent topic of discussion in these last days of David’s life is the role David always wanted to play but never got the opportunity to – that of King David (of Old Testament fame) and his many wives. As David Wheaton and his family explore the parallels between their lives and the lives of those in King David’s time, they also take another look through their shared past and at the events that shaped them all.

Over the past month of so, the members of The Faith and Fiction Roundtable have been reading and discussing Certain Women. This book has generated a ton of discussion, as we were pretty divided on how we felt about it, but I personally really enjoyed the novel.

It’s not often that I read a book that so clearly takes a story from the Bible and turns it on its head (Amy pointed out that The Red Tent is another example of this being done well, and I completely agree). One of the things that we discussed is how Certain Women really showed the King David story through the eyes of his wives and children, and that was one of the things that, I think, kept me turning the pages. It was done subtly, as the majority of the story was focused on the present-day David and his family, but so many of the events in their lives mirrored events in the Biblical story, and as these events were told from Emma’s perspective (David’s daughter), it forced the reader to look at the Biblical stories through a different lens. It really made me stop and think – these Biblical characters, they were real people, dealing with real situations, and this is what it might have been like for them.

The theme of forgiveness is one that stood out for me in the novel. There are some awful things that happen to this family – things that they do to one another, and also tragedies that they suffer through no fault of their own. They absolutely must forgive in order to heal from these painful parts of their lives. David’s wives must forgive him and his new wives in order to find peace for themselves (and it is clear when reading the book that the wives who are unable to forgive are also unable to find happiness). There is rape in this novel and a possible murder, both of which can be forgiven – and some characters do forgive, others do not.

All this forgiveness made me think about forgiveness in my own life. I know that forgiveness is something God tells us we must do, and yet I have to admit that I find it difficult sometimes, that to this day there are people in my past who have harmed me so deeply that I do not know if I will ever truly be able to forgive. But strangely enough, I was watching the Oprah show the other day (no talking bad about Oprah, people, I love her) and she was talking about forgiveness. She said something like (this isn’t exact but pretty close): “Forgiveness is letting go of the idea that the past could have been different.” That resonated with me so much because I was thinking about forgiveness at that moment, turning it around in my brain after reading Certain Women, and I think her saying that was exactly what I needed to hear.

So I am going to work harder to forgive. I am going to work harder at giving those feelings to God, to seeking out His grace when I’m having difficulty finding some of my own for those who have hurt me. I’m not talking little things here, I’m talking about those hurts that last a lifetime, but still – He wants me to forgive, he wants me to let go and surrender those feelings to him. And for my own self, I need to let go of the idea that the past could have been different.

Please check out the thoughts of the other Faith and Fiction Roundtable participants – these are some great people with very different responses to this novel. Visit them:

Book Hooked Blog, Books and Movies, Crazy for Books, Ignorant Historian, Linus’s BlanketMy Friend Amy, My Random Thoughts, One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books, Roving Reads, Semicolon, The 3 R’s Blog, Tina’s Book Reviews, Victorious Cafe, Word Lily


23 thoughts on “Faith and Fiction Roundtable: Certain Women by Madeline L’Engle”

  1. The forgiveness issue was huge, wasn’t it? And until you posted, I hadn’t put together the fact that the wives who wouldn’t forgive were the ones who were miserable – and some made their kids miserable, like Billy’s mother.

    Forgiveness is something I struggle with, too – not in the little, everyday things, but in the big things, the things that have shaped who I am. It is something we can only truly do with God’s grace, I believe.

    1. I think you’re right about that. But it takes quite a bit of willingness and effort on our part, too, and sometimes I find it difficult to get my heart there. Something I’ll always work on, I suppose.

      1. Heather – I couldn’t agree more! My heart resists forgiving the ones who have hurt me- especially if they are not sorry or do not even acknowledge the hurt they’ve caused. It’s not easy.

  2. Forgiveness is definitely one of the more challenging things in life–something that looks good on page but is so hard to live out. I don’t know if I could have done so much forgiveness in these same situations. Thanks for your great thoughts, Heather!

  3. “Forgiveness is letting go of the idea that the past could have been different.” Well said, Oprah :-).

    You and Sherry definitely zeroed in on the forgiveness theme – I don’t think it registered so strongly for me, and now I’m feeling like it should have, as it really is a strong undercurrent throughout the novel. That’s the good thing about discussions like this, though – gaining insights from each other.

  4. I’m always a little nervous of Madeline L’Engle’s grown-up books — I read a few of them when I was little, because I’d loved her Wrinkle in Time series, and they were waaaaaay over my head and a bit upsetting. But I think I’m old enough now to take it, and all the reviews of this book are intriguing me!

        1. Yep, I missed a lot of “traditional” children’s literature because my parents were not readers at all. I read whatever I could get my hands on, but wasn’t really exposed to the classic children’s books like most kids were.

  5. This is one that I may have to read. I can forgive others easily but forgiving myself is something I find hard to do. I really loved your thoughtful review.

    1. I struggle with forgiving myself as well. I will tell myself I am forgiven but then find myself dwelling on stuff I wish I did differently. Something that will always be a struggle, I suppose.

  6. I think it’s also important to understand that forgiveness isn’t something that just happens once. It’s a process, not an event, particularly in the case of a terrible injustice. When I’ve been deeply wounded, I have to forgive that person again and again, sometimes from minute to minute.

    1. That’s such a good point, Julie. I have had moments where I think, yes I truly forgive that person, I’m done carrying those feelings around. But especially in the case of the person not realizing or caring what they’ve done to me, the feelings will resurface and I have to do the work all over again. It truly is a process.

  7. Like many people, I’ve struggled with the concept of forgiveness. Does forgiveness mean negating whatever is being forgiven – saying that it doesn’t matter? Does forgiveness including trusting the forgiven in the future? Who exactly benefits from forgiveness?

    I read a poem a number of years ago by Claude McKay that made me think of forgiveness in a particular way. He was a black man living in 1920’s America and endured much that was “unforgivable.” Part of the poem reads: “I must keep my heart inviolate/Against the potent poison of your hate.” I think of forgiveness as the antidote to the poison of whatever action needs to be forgiven.

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