Rating: 4 out of 5.

(Madeleine L’Engle, 1946)

Ilsa is a wild thing; many love her but she is largely unattainable. The author has chosen to portray Ilsa as reflected through the eyes of Henry Porcher, who first meets her as a child, and then years later as an adult. Henry worships Ilsa, and in return Ilsa loves Henry like a brother – or a favorite lap dog.

A respectable specimen of Southern fiction, the book meanders from scene to scene. The characters are equally languid for the most part, and I appreciate the author’s use of a male first person narrator, which isn’t something I’ve seen in her other books. Her portayal of Henry is natural and genuine.

I admire L’Engle’s skilled treatment of family dysfunction in her adult novels. We don’t see much of that in her YA fiction. Henry is raised by a cold, aloof mother, and has just the bare bones of a relationship with his father. Nearly every character in the book is a cousin (distant or near) of every other character, but that doesn’t stop them from intermarrying. This penchant for keeping things in the family is brought up in a short piece of dialogue, but no one is overly concerned. Some of the cousins are just obnoxious enough to create dialogue that could evoke sorrow, anger, or tension in the reader; these high points of emotion keep the story interesting and drive events forward.

This is a purely character-driven novel; you’ll find startling and life-changing events, but in the end it’s all about relationships. If you enjoy character development that mostly takes place on front porches and darkened living rooms, you’ll appreciate Ilsa. I started to name Ilsa as the main character, then wondered if we learn more about Henry than about Ilsa as the book unfolds. Read the book and draw your own conclusions!

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