It was a lovely surprise when this book by Madeleine L'Engle, published posthumously, showed up among the new books delivered to my library. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time, not because I didn't want to read it, but because I didn't want to have read it, if you know what I mean. She is one of my favorite writers, and I've read all her books, and it was nice to have this one to look forward to reading for a while.
The introduction, written by L'Engle's grand-daughter, tells how L'Engle never managed to publish this manuscript, and it ended up being a sort of special, private book for her two grand-daughters. It is set during the time of L'Engle's life that she spent in the theater, and while it might seem a bit dated to some readers, I found myself enjoying the glimpse of life during World War II - it was an interesting read because it was written during the time it was set, not as a retrospective historical novel - yet it was published so many years afterwards.
The story is a fairly simple coming-of-age story (and my library places it in the young adult section, although the editors who originally rejected it felt it was too old for teenagers). It tells the tale of Elizabeth Jerrold, who has just graduated from college, and who, against the wishes of her grumpy guardian Aunt Harriet, has taken a position as an apprentice to a summer theater company at the beach. She is a scholarship student, and Aunt Harriet grudgingly sends Elizabeth $20 a week for her room and board. Elizabeth adores the theater, and she's made some wonderful friends. She doesn't mind the hard work - she gets to the theater early to sell tickets and run errands, and she loves the acting lessons she and her fellow apprentices have in the afternoons. She is having the time of her life - but suddenly Aunt Harriet is determined to put an end to her fun.
Elizabeth is smitten with the director, who is obviously attracted to her. Her friends - as well as the reader - can immediately see that she's far too good for him, but of course Elizabeth is going to have to learn that sort of thing on her own. I found him extremely patronizing and irritating - he calls her "little Elizabeth" and "sweet child," and says things like, "I'm very fond of you, funny one." Ick. But he's the important director, handsome and suave, and he is easily able to sweep the intelligent, talented Elizabeth off her feet.
Elizabeth experiences an unforgettable summer, meeting famous stage actors, witnessing some of the negative aspects of the theater when spiteful, self-absorbed actors show their true colors, coming to terms with her unusual and sometimes painful past, and learning to trust herself in matters of the heart. I enjoyed the 1940s setting of the book, and the way the characters lived and breathed the theater (some of their conversations reminded me of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, when the characters got carried away discussing plays), as well as the relationships among Elizabeth and her apprentice friends. I was sad when I closed the book - not only to say goodbye to the characters, but to say a final farewell to the last book by one of my favorite authors that I'll ever get to read for the very first time.
The Joys of Love by Madeleine L'Engle (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008)