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IN BRIEF

Fiction

July 21, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

A LIVE COAL IN THE SEA by Madeleine L'Engle (Farrar Straus & Giroux: $24, 323 pp.). Madeleine L'Engle's classic children's science fiction book, "A Wrinkle in Time" (1962), was a memorable addition to childhood. "A Live Coal in the Sea," her new novel for grown-ups, is unfortunately less memorable. Unlike "Bailey's Beads" (above) this one hangs together. All the turns and twists in its somewhat predictable plot are neatly sewn up in the happy ending, but there is little or no texture in the writing. The characters, despite a wide variance in their ages, all sound the same and are almost impossible to distinguish from one another. The settings are nondescript, and the entire novel is left to very flat dialogue like the following: "We're all too busy. Even you Mom, you hardly ever get out to Seattle. When are you going to retire?" "When the college decides it's time, I suppose. Not for a while, yet. I love my work." "And I love mine. I'm doing more painting, now, and less book illustrating. We're lucky to enjoy what we do, aren't we?" "Very." "Good night, Mom. I'll call again in a few days." Blech.

In all fairness, part of the plot revolves around a character, the family matriarch, Camilla, who holds the secret that when told will allow her children's and grandchildren's stifled identities to unfold. But even the revelations are trite: "Would it be all right? Terrible damage had been done. But Andrew's revelation was a mercy, a live coal that did not need to be dropped into the sea, but could flame quietly, and by which they could warm themselves. She hoped it was a mercy for Andrew, too." The book has a soap opera feel to it that clashes fatally with L'Engle's otherwise clear, sensible and sometimes beautiful prose.

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