Book Reviews: Madeline L’Engle’s Austin Family Books

Austin Family Books

When I was a teenager, I pretty much fell in love with “A Ring of Endless Light” by Madeline L’Engle.  I read it a thousand times, until I knew passages off by heart.  Vicky felt like I would have about things, and the summer on the beach in a grandfather’s house was so similar to my own experience, despite the sadness and death.  The poem her grandfather has on the wall of their attic bunk space still holds so much, even though I’m older.  I think it’s nondenominational.  After all, isn’t this also just meditation?

If thou couldst empty all thy self of self

Like to a shell dishabited

Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf

And say this is not dead

And fill thee with Himself instead

But thou art so replete with very thou

And has such shrewd activity

That He will say this is enou’ unto itself

T’were better let it be

It is so small and full there is no room for me

I knew there were others of the series, but I grew up in the dark ages before there were e-readers.  If it wasn’t in stock at Borders, or the school book fair, I wasn’t likely to be able to get ahold of it.  So I loved the fourth book and didn’t worry too much about the others.

Fast forward, and I found that I can get them now!!  All five of them!  So I had a little binge reading.  While I don’t think that any of the books really stands up to “A Ring of Endless Light,” they were mostly enjoyable.  I’m glad I read them.  Breakdown of the books is below.

Meet the Austins:

There wasn’t really anything in this book that seemed profound, but it was a lovely universe .  It was as if Anne of Green Gables or Little Women had moved to the fifties, with all the lamentations of growing up included.  You end up rooting for Aunt Elena and Uncle Douglas to get together, for terrible Maggie to get to stay, and for Dad to get to eat dinner just once.  I enjoyed it.  Especially the nights under the stars and the Muffins picnic.  In a way, this is the best of what the Austins have to offer – real life introspectively.  It’s from Vicky’s 12 year old perspective, so it’s not terribly deep.  But it’s nice.

The Moon By Night:

Dad has taken a job at a research hospital in New York City, so to bridge the time the family goes on a cross-country road trip while camping along the way.  I mostly really loved this book.  The family dynamic feels more real than in “Meet the Austins,” and it’s sort of fun to see the boys all react to Vicky and have her be sought out.  I didn’t like Zachary, though.  He’s a huge part of the book, and I don’t know why Vicky doesn’t see that his desire to scare her isn’t desirable.  Or, I mean, I sort of understand it.  Because when you’re fourteen it’s nice to be noticed by a boy and that sort of overshadows the fact that the boy himself may not be that nice.  But I didn’t find it any less annoying.

Another big thing that bothered me was the earthquake that happens in the last part of the novel.  I had to read the passage again and again to make sure that it happened, and it wasn’t something I misread or something out of a dream.  It felt so unreal, just as Zachary’s protestations that he would become good were.  Perhaps it’s because I had already read book 4 so I knew he doesn’t, but it all seemed a little surreal.

I liked the book over all, though.  There is something about being with the Austin family that makes the other things seem worth it.  I was worried at this point, though, that the rest of the books were of this superficial quality and that “A Ring of Endless Light” wouldn’t hold up to my memory of it.

The Young Unicorns:

This book assuaged my worries about the rest of the series.  It was GOOD.  A little bit too unlikely thriller, but still good.  I liked how the whole premise of the thing rested on how no one was willing to share information with each other because they wanted to protect the others.  I also think that Emily’s blindness was handled really well.  She’s super-capable despite.  In fact, she saves the day, and that’s nice to see portrayed.

There were two things I had trouble with.  Okay, well, three… but the first was that the family didn’t seem its usual close entity in New York.  I think that’s probably by design, so I’m not sure it counts.  I still missed it since that’s what I loved so much about the first two novels.  Number two was that the plot line was so unlikely, it was like something out of a fantasy.  I know… it’s Madeline L’Engle so what was I expecting?  But the Austins live in an otherwise normal universe, so it felt like the crisis must have some element of normality about it.  It didn’t.  The last thing was that, after being in Vicky’s head for the other two novels, this one jumps around in perspective quite a lot.  It took me a bit to fall into the rhythm of it, although I got there eventually.

Still, the writing became so much more mature than the other two, and I couldn’t put it down.  An A+.

A Ring of Endless Light:

Oh the best book of this series by far.  It held up to my expectations of it, and more.  I was still annoyed by Zachary, but this time I think I was supposed to be.  And I could understand more why Vicky might agree to spend time with him despite his crazy.  I would really like to sit down with this thing and ferret out what L’Engle’s doing and why with all the death metaphors, and see if the structure is something I can learn from.  It’s so complex, in a way that feels real.  The only thing that doesn’t feel likely is Vicky’s easy telepathy with the dolphins and her ability to use it also with Adam.  But dolphins are a little otherworldly anyway, and her abilities with Adam create some very intimate moments between the two of them that I thrilled at.  Reading the rest of the series made the story all deeper somehow, and I didn’t think that was possible.  But I felt echoes of the previous books in the images in this one.

I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s beach house when I was growing up, piled into tiny spaces with my family and loving every minute of it.  This book feels just like that did, where you know you are home and safe, but there really isn’t any home or safe anymore and you know that too.  Although none of the things happened to me that happen to Vicky, she is still 16-year-old-me’s patronus…

I’m so glad it held up.  I will treasure this book forever.  It was a life-changer.

Troubling A Star:

I don’t know what to say about this book, because I felt so betrayed at the end of it.  But I don’t think it was a bad novel.  I just think I was expecting other things from it.  And I believe that L’Engle set me up to expect other things for it.  Although maybe I’m being over dramatic because what I thought was going to happen didn’t.  It’s so hard to know.   It’s very like “The Young Unicorns” in spirit, so if you liked that one you might like this as well.

The book was well written and suspenseful.  It’s another crime drama, and it revolves around Adam’s Aunt Serena who gifts Vicky a trip to Antarctica to visit Adam during his internship.  It starts with that gimmick where the main character (Vicky) is  in peril (stuck on an iceberg and probably dying,) and then you get the rest of the book to discover how it happened.  I thought the continuing story of her saga on the iceberg kept suspense through the novel well, but I don’t think that the suspense ultimately paid off.  The ending just wasn’t big enough for all the nail-biting that preceded it.  No one is very certain what’s going on, it could be drugs, or it could be nuclear waste, or… but it looks like Adam’s in trouble, and therefore Vicky is too.

The thing is, the jacket description made me think it was going to be about Adam and Vicky figuring out their relationship.  I was looking forward to L’Engle saying something profound about the nature of romance, and that never materialized.  I also felt like Adam became a different person in this book.  He goes from being this man full of joy to being, well, not anything much at all.  It’s revealed that he’s this rich kid with an Arctic Exploration heritage, and then he’s just gone for the rest of the novel.  Even the letters he sends Vicky aren’t him, they’re Shakespeare quotes.  There is no mention that any of the experiences they shared in “A Ring of Endless Light” have changed either of them, or that this telepathic bond they’ve created still holds.  That’s really what angered me, I think.  It’s like the events in the previous book, events that really changed me as a reader, didn’t matter to the characters in the book at all.  I felt betrayed.

But I can’t really hold my own disappointment against the book as a whole.  I would say it’s well written, and there are charming moments when the Arctic ice is so pretty, and there are seals and penguins galore.  It just didn’t do what I expected it to.  I shall try to forgive it.

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