A Live Coal in the Sea (Camilla Dickinson Series #2)

A Live Coal in the Sea (Camilla Dickinson Series #2)

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by Madeleine L'Engle

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Madeleine L'Engle's first adult novel in four years — now in paperback! With 23,000 copies sold since May 1996, this "haunting domestic drama" (Publishers Weekly) examines the powers of faith and mercy in one family's confrontation with a legacy of evil.

Best known for A Wrinkle in Time — the children's classic that has sold more than 2

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Madeleine L'Engle's first adult novel in four years — now in paperback! With 23,000 copies sold since May 1996, this "haunting domestic drama" (Publishers Weekly) examines the powers of faith and mercy in one family's confrontation with a legacy of evil.

Best known for A Wrinkle in Time — the children's classic that has sold more than 2 million copies since 1962 — Madeleine L'Engle is as adept at exploring faith and human experience as she is at spinning fascinating, fantastic tales. Now this masterful storyteller blends her two passions and offers an engrossing new story to delight her devoted audience.

When Dr. Camilla Dickinson's teenage granddaughter confronts her with the disquieting question of whether Camilla is, in fact, her grandmother, long-kept secrets rise to the surface to test the faith, love and loyalty of the Xanthakos family. This skillful, gripping tale shuttles between past and troubled present, providing clues to a multigenerational mystery — clues that begin to focus on Camilla's son, the deeply troubled TV idol Artaxias, and on Camilla's mother, the irresistibly beautiful and adulterous Rose. Though riveting and psychologically complex, A Live Coal in the Sea is "infused with the warmth of love and mercy" (Booklist), showcasing the keen eye and deep compassion that have made L'Engle one of this century's premier writers on faith and its place in human experience.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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)
Library Journal
Best known for her children's books, notably the classic A Wrinkle in Time (1962), L'Engle has also produced adult novels, including A Severed Wasp (LJ 2/1/83). Her newest is a family drama centered around astronomy professor Camilla Dickinson. In smoothly blended present and flashback story lines, we learn all about the skeletons in the family closet. When 18-year-old granddaughter Raffi asks Camilla why her father-Camilla's son Taxi, a soap opera star-claims she's not really her grandmother, the complicated true story starts to spill out. Camilla's young, pretty mother, Rose, cheated on her husband. Camilla's husband, Macarios Wanthakos, an Episcopal priest and son of a bishop, had his own dark family stories. Dysfunctions abound, and the anticlimactic answer to the puzzle of Taxi's parentage mars the ending, but this will fit well into popular reading collections.-Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., Va.
Kirkus Reviews
Explosive family secrets are defused by love, wisdom, and a foreshadowed revelation, in this latest intricately plotted adult novel by L'Engle (Certain Women, 1992, etc.).

When granddaughter Raffi asks Camilla whether she really is her grandmother, Camilla (a distinguished astronomer) knows it's time to tell the truth. But the truth is complex; the telling will take time. Raffi's visits to hear the story alternate with Camilla's own memories and the emotions they arouse. The young Camilla Dickinson, upset by her philandering mother Rose's affair with Camilla's favorite professor, Red Grange, had been comforted by her college's Episcopalian chaplain, Mac Xanthakos. The two soon fell in love, but Mac had his own problems and ran off to Kenya to do missionary work. After he returned, they became lovers, and Camilla, along with Mac's wise, loving parents Olivia and Art, helped him wrestle with the demons that had been driving him. Camilla and Mac married and then moved to Georgia, where Camilla continued her studies while trying to be the model rector's wife. Their happiness, though, was brief: First, Rose, in Paris with long-suffering husband Rafferty Dickinson, announced she was pregnant; then, when Camilla herself was pregnant, Rose was killed in an accident, leaving behind baby Artaxias—Taxi—who turned out not to be Dickinson's son after all. Camilla and Mac raise Taxi as their own, along with their own daughter, Frankie, but poor Taxi, who grows up to be a soap-opera star, must endure profoundly troubling questions about his identity before Camilla can finally answer Raffi's question. The answer is a long foreshadowed revelation—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."

A fast-paced story that, though weighted with the usual L'Engle explorations of faith and science, seems ultimately thin and contrived.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Camilla Dickinson Series, #2
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The reception was held in the president's house. Camilla was seated in a large wing chair by the windows which looked out to a lake, around three sides of which the college buildings were scattered, red brick, white clapboard, grey stone, a casual architectural mix which had an unexpectedly pleasing effect.

Champagne was uncorked. Fruit punch and ginger ale were offered. White-aproned college students served hors d'oeuvres. The large room was filled with Camilla's colleagues, friends, students. Her family. One of the young girls, offering her a tray of smoked salmon, whispered, "We're really proud of you, Dr. Dickinson."

The award ceremony had been held in Hiram B. Hingham Hall, Camilla standing on the stage to receive the Maria Mitchell Medal for distinguished work in astronomy. For a modest little medal, she thought, the college was treating it like the Nobel Prize. She was, nevertheless, pleased.

Her children were there. Taxi had driven up from New York, warning her that he would have to leave early. He was the star of a soap opera and would be taping at seven in the morning. He stood beside the president of the college, shorter, but equally distinguished in his tux, and certainly arresting with his black hair and fair skin and always an aura of excitement in the way he carried his body, looked around him, as though expecting something to happen, either marvelous or terrible, one could not be sure. Thessaly, his wife, was obviously happy and excited, arm in arm with Frankie--Frances--Camilla's daughter, who had flown in from Seattle for the occasion. Light from the crystal chandeliers highlighted Thessaly's sleek chestnut hair, pulledback from her face and into a neat roll as she had worn it when she was a dancer. Frankie's hair, dark like Taxi's, was beginning to be streaked with white, but she was a handsome woman, Camilla thought, taller than Taxi or Thessaly, but carrying herself well.

Raffi, Camilla's beloved granddaughter, Taxi and Thessaly's daughter, was a freshman in the college, delighted at all the attention being paid to her grandmother.

Camilla looked around the crowded room. It was time to stop sitting like an elderly dowager duchess in the chair the president had led her to. She stood up, champagne glass in hand, so that she could talk more easily with the guests.

Taxi, moving with as much grace as his wife, though he had never done any professional dancing, came over to his mother, along with a white-bearded man who was chairman of the physics department. Camilla introduced them, and the physics professor shook Taxi's hand, saying, "It seems that a number of the students are quite excited by your presence." He sounded interested, but puzzled.

"Taxi is an actor," Camilla said.

Taxi shrugged gracefully. "I'm presently in a soap."

"A what?"

Taxi smiled. "A soap opera--daytime television. College students manage to watch it, though I doubt if the eminent professors do."

The professor laughed. "No, I'm afraid we don't. My wife and I occasionally get in to New York to the theatre."

Camilla said, "Taxi often does plays, too. There was one that opened early in the season"

"And immediately flopped," Taxi said. "It was a terrific show, really, but the critics simply didn't get it."

"Well, better luck next time." The professor moved off to join a group of colleagues.

Taxi said in a low voice, "Mom, you really didn't need to mention that disaster."

"Sorry, Tax. You were wonderful in it."

"The critics didn't give me much credit. I haven't had a hit in two years." He glanced around to where his daughter was standing with a group of girls. "How's my Raffi getting along"

"She's doing beautifully. Several of her professors have told me how bright she is."

"Of course she's bright." He sounded impatient.

Camilla, too, looked at the girl, easily identified in her group of friends by her brilliant red hair. She wore a bulky orange sweater which both clashed with and showed it off. One of her teachers had told Camilla, `Raffi's fragile. She's popular, and she does well, but sometimes I think some key word might break her in two.'

Taxi continued, "Thessaly and I have been doing considerable quarreling and it upsets the child. It's not important. We're nowhere near separation or divorce. I've had enough divorce. Raffi simply doesn't understand that parents are human, too."

Camilla asked, "When you were Raffi's age, did you?"

"Believe me, Mom, I did. I hope Raffi will never have to go through what I went through."

She felt cold. The windows onto the terrace were open and a breeze was blowing into the room. "Taxi, darling-"

"Oh, I survived it, Mom, I'm a survivor. I just hope Raffi is, too. Thessaly and I are very grateful she has you to fall back on."

"I'll do whatever I can."

"I know you will, Mom. You always do."

Even when it's abysmally not enough.

Taxi looked around the room again. Laughed. "It seems most of your professor pals don't watch the soaps."

"Most of them teach during the day."

"I doubt if that's what deters them. Well, their loss."

"The students, however," Camilla said, "are ardent admirers of yours. How many autographs have you already signed tonight"

"On your program," Taxi said. "They'll just lose them."

"Not necessarily. You mean a lot to them." She smiled as two more girls came up to him, one with an autograph book, one with the evening's program. He turned away, lavishing them with his presence.

But he had made her feel in the wrong, something he managed to do whether she had done or said anything wrong or not. As though she deserved to be punished. She shook her head. Most parents probably deserve to be punished for one reason or another. Mostly their children don't act on it.

Frankie came over, put an arm about her mother. "Mom, what a terrific evening. Your medal is impressive, but who is that guy on the other side of it?"

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A Live Coal in the Sea 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
bmamca36 More than 1 year ago
This book is about several generations and how secrets can destroy. It is based on the family of Camilla Dickinson which unfortunately I did not read the book Camilla but may do in the future because this book is said to be a great tie in to that story. Although, this book was a good stand alone book. Alot of it deals with Camilla's marriage to Mac which I feel could have been condensed more. It also dealt with the relationship that they had with their parents and their two children, Taxi and Frankie. Taxi's parentage is a major component of the book and his daughter, Raffi is searching for answers from Camilla. It is an intense family crisis (soap opera) from the beginning until the end. The end of the book was unexpected.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The only other introduction I had to L'Engle was the Wrinkle in Time series which I just loved. This novel was definately more mature than the Time novels. It is very well written and you will find yourself unable to put it down. The characters are very developed and intriguing especially Camilla Dickenson. It is a complete soap opera and this book kept me guessing to the very end. It brings the question: How much does our idenity and ancestry shape our lives? I still think the Time series is better, but if you want a read that will keep you entertained for those times you're stuck in your house during a snowstorm. I would highly recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A must read... L'Engle finishes the loose ends of Camilla with this fantastic, up-to-date novel about Camilla and her granddaughter, with just one question... 'Are you, or are you not my Grandmother??' I don't really want to say much about the book, because every word is a surprise, every twist and turn in the plot an adventure. All I can say is, yes, there are sexual themes, yes, the book is very mature, but, God, it's a wonderful read, as all L'Engle's books are. I'm only 15, and yet, I loved this book, but I tend to read more mature literature. A great read for college students and adults. Five stars, no question.