cover image A Live Coal in the Sea

A Live Coal in the Sea

Madeleine L'Engle. Farrar Straus Giroux, $24 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-374-18989-1

Red hair acts as a red flag in this haunting domestic drama, signaling an end to secrecy in the far-flung Xanthakos family. When flame-haired college student Raffi Xanthakos demands to know if professor Camilla Dickinson is really her grandmother, Camilla guides Raffi along the branches of a family tree afflicted with a peculiar blight. Raffi's father is Artaxias, aka Taxi, a famous soap-opera star who behaves imperiously toward his wife and daughter. How is Taxi actually related to Camilla, and to his sister, Frankie? L'Engle, the venerated author of more than 40 novels for children and adults (Certain Women), delves into the past to present a compassionate portrait of Camilla and her husband, Mac Xanthakos, as a young couple beset on every side by inherited troubles. Mac is an Episcopalian priest; Camilla is an astronomer. This marriage of religion and science grows and flourishes with special help from Mac's wise mother, Olivia. An ill-timed accident claims the life of Camilla's own mother, and she and Mac find themselves obliged to raise the damaged child, Taxi, alongside Frankie. As Camilla gradually tells Raffi what she knows, and as Raffi does some snooping of her own to find her paternal grandfather, sifting through generations of half-told truths and desperate silences, both emerge from their journeys purged of weights that have burdened their hearts. If L'Engle's dialogue is sometimes board-stiff, lending this work the psychological depth of a YA novel for grown-ups, she still demonstrates a sure touch with her theme of redemption, rescuing all her characters from their separate sorrows so they can forgive and be forgiven. (May)