The dark side of the personality is the focus of Madeleine L'Engle's seventh novel for adults as she explores the tensions in a fictional community of clergy and their families set in the real-life Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan, where she is writer-in-residence.
When the elderly Katherine Vigneras, a famous classical pianist, retires to New York contemplating a quiet life, she is asked to give a benefit concert by the former bishop, Felix Bodeway, an acquaintance from her youth, who draws her into the cathedral community's problems and also stirs up her own painful memories.
Her new acquaintances also prompt Katherine to review her life, particularly the effects of imprisonment by the Nazis during World War II on herself and her husband, her crucial friendships with three other men, and the personal importance of her music. She dreams frequently of the past, ". . . as though her subconscious mind was helping her to recover all the things she had not had time to think about . . . Now the past was returning to her . . . not to shock and frighten her, but to help her complete herself."
"A Severed Wasp" continually asserts the importance of connecting one's past with the present, the pieces forming a whole the character must learn to accept. The book is permeated with images of the wholeness formed from the union of contrasts or opposites. L'Engle writes, for example, of the beauty of light and shadow in a painting, or of hope and risk as necesssary, even contingent components of life. The present bishop speaks of "the artistic temperament" as ". . . a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling," but Katherine suggests, "it's most likely the same angel in different guises," the creative impulse a force of such magnitude that it can indeed seem destructive, but also works to do good. All the movement in the book is toward harmony, toward acceptance and resolution of conflicting parts, however difficult this may be to achieve, while acknowledging the fruits of tension, good and bad.
As she prepares for the concert, Katherine becomes increasingly involved in the life of the cathedral community, where the street murder of a popular bishop releases strong feeling and tension. She also begins to receive obscene and accusing phone calls and finds out Felix has been receiving them as well. At the same time, she becomes the confidant of an assortment of troubled characters, including Felix, concerned about his homosexual past; the dean's daughter Emily, a promising young ballerina who lost her leg in an accident; and the wife of the present bishop, once a pop singer, who must come to terms with her own past of poverty, abuse and jealousy. Their work, the work of all the characters in this book where past and present are strongly intertwined, is to learn to understand and sustain themselves by accepting both their own histories and all aspects of their personalities.
Not only is each character concerned with resolving his inner tensions and conflicts, but the story itself consciously draws together their lives into a coherent whole. "A Severed Wasp" is a web of connections, associations, coincidences and resemblances. The present bishop, for example, bears an uncanny resemblance, later explained, to the head of Katherine's Nazi prison, and Emily, determined and vulnerable, reminds Katherine of herself as an adolescent. The cathedral's organist, who lost his wife and daughter in childbirth, becomes involved with Katherine's young, pregnant tenant, who has just painfully separated from her husband. Two mysteries--Emily's accident and the threatening phone calls Katherine and Felix receive--turn out to have the same cause and shed light upon yet another character's problems. And music, a healing force and central image in the book, ties much of the story together. Love of music first attracts members of the cathedral community to Katherine, and at the end they assemble, each in his place, to hear her concert, brought through their troubles to a moment of peace.
This ending, sweet and neat, suggests some of the limitations of "A Severed Wasp." Although readable and involving, making serious themes accessible, it lacks the qualities of proportion and discrimination possible in a novel less neatly constructed. The details of each character's personal tragedy and pain are different, but too many of them are extraordinary, so that the impact of each is diminished. And too much is resolved too completely and at the same time, with the effect of a chorus reaching a crescendo together, rather than the complex, discordant, unresolved quality of life itself. Much seems either too bitter or too sweet, and each quality quickly balanced by the other. This is reflected in the language, which can be effusive. For example, Katherine and her husband, learning that a friend was a writer, "had gone . . . to buy everything available, devoured the books in great gulps, then gone back and sipped them slowly, and his words had nurtured them, their love."
L'Engle, like Katherine described by a fan, puts "no curtain of protection between play and audience," and this can be satisfying or simplifying, depending on one's tastes. "A Severed Wasp" brings the reader directly into contact with characters who, as they often tell Katherine, need to confess, and it directly expresses emotion, philosophy and solutions. It shows us much of brightness and darkness, but little of the subtle shadows in between.