cover image Certain Women

Certain Women

Madeleine L'Engle. Farrar Straus Giroux, $21 (351pp) ISBN 978-0-374-12025-2

``Marrying was a habit with me, a bad habit,'' David Wheaton declares from his deathbed in this disappointing novel by the Newbery Award-winning CK author of A Wrinkle in Time . As the 87-year-old actor's boat plies the waters of the Pacific Northwest, Wheaton looks back on his life with eight wives and 11 children. Also on board is his devoted daughter Emma, stunned by the imminence of her father's death and by the recent dissolution of her marriage to a playwright whose drama about King David and his wives provides the framework for L'Engle's relentless analogies between the Old Testament monarch and the modern-day actor. Recasting the biblical tale as a meditation on love and marriage, L'Engle piles on literary references: David met Emma's mother while making a film version of The Mill on the Floss , named their daughter after the heroine of Madame Bovary and calls his boat the Portia . But name-dropping does not a work of literature make. The epigraph from St. Luke--``Certain women made us astonished''--is not borne out by these two-dimensional characters, who don't astonish in the least as they speak and act by formula. The heavy-handed biblical subtext overwhelms rather than enhances the contemporary drama. ( Oct. )