In A House Like a Lotus Meg and Calvin's eldest daughter, Polyhymnia O'Keefe (previously nicknamed "Poly", but now nicknamed "Polly" in this book because she was sick of correcting people) takes a vacation in Greece and Cyprus in order to do a lot of thinking. She is now sixteen, going on seventeen, and she is awash with many confusing feelings that she must work out. Complicating the process is Zachary, an ailing rich-boy who sets his sights on Polly as soon as he lays eyes on her, captivated by her innocence and maturity. Her adventures with him, and with others during her vacation mingle with her memories of a great friendship and betrayal a few months beforehand. In sorting everything out, Polly comes of age.
Be warned that this review contains serious spoilers.
Madeleine L'Engle is, of course, best known for her book A Wrinkle in Time and the books following which chronicle the adventures of Meg and Charles, and Meg's future husband Calvin. They are fantastical tales of travel at the speed of thought, alien worlds, monstrous evils to be fought, and the power of love in all its forms.
Madeleine L'Engle has a deeper range than young adult science fiction. Even knowing this, however, it was a shock to read A House Like a Lotus. It has the same love of the Time Quartet novels, but there is no tessering and no kything. There are no alien worlds to explore, and no monstrous evils to be fought. Instead of clean-cut good and bad (a feature of even the earlier O'Keefe series of novels), all we have are complex and human characters
To see Meg and Calvin coping with a brood of seven children, and their eldest daughter Polly, dealing with a straight story about love, betrayal and forgiveness makes it feel like you're reading from a different author. It is a compelling expansion upon Meg and Calvin's characters, and Polly carries the story in the first person with considerable grace, as she first befriends, and then flees from, a dying woman named Maxa. It's brilliant, but it still takes some getting used to.
The story is written with, in my opinion, a much older audience in mind than A Wrinkle in Time. The Time Quartet is timeless and ageless, but A House Like a Lotus deals frankly with sexual issues, including homosexuality and Polly's first sexual experience (heterosexual). I would not recommend this book to anybody under the age of fourteen, but to any other fan of L'Engle's work, this book is a must read.
Look up the book's listing on Amazon.com and you will see from some of the customer reviews that Madeleine L'Engle takes it between the eyes for her controversial subject matter. Some more liberal than her might say that she has demonized homosexuality through Maxa's drunken advances on Polly. On the other hand, others more conservative than Madeleine will not appreciate the fact that sixteen-year-old Polly has sex outside of marriage once (and isn't the least bit unhappy about it) and is perfectly open to having it again with someone else. The scene where Polly loses her virginity is touchingly and tastefully handled. There is much too much love going on in this scene for me to believe that a sin is being committed.
Personally, I did not think Madeleine demonized homosexuality through Maxa's portrayal in this book. Maxa is portrayed as a brilliant but hurt individual, who is dying, suffering, and deeply afraid. When she is her true self, she is compassionate, and an excellent life-teacher to Polly. Much is made early on in the story that Maxa and her live-in partner Ursula might be lesbians (first as scurrillous rumours that also touch upon Polly, but then Maxa acknowledges her sexuality in an excellent scene), but Meg and Calvin make it quite clear that they believe that what goes on between two consenting adults in private is their own business. They refuse to pass judgement, and I agree with that.
On the other hand, Maxa's advances on Polly were made when Maxa was drunk, hurting more than ever, and more afraid than ever about her oncoming death. She does hurt Polly (this is the focus of the book), but she realizes almost right away that what she has done was very wrong, but only as it relates to itself. Homosexuality is not the defining factor in this shocking and key scene of the book. If Maxa had been a man, the scene would have had as much, if not more power.
A House Like a Lotus is a book about trust and love, and how, by just being the humans we are, we sometimes don't live up to other people's trust. And how we must forgive ourselves and the others who betray us, for our human foibles. In this regard, "A House Like a Lotus" carries more power than the entire Time Quartet combined.