Friday, August 23, 2013

A Ring of Endless Light - Madeline L'Engle


After a tumultuous year in New York City, the Austins are spending the summer on the small island where their grandfather lives. He’s very sick, and watching his condition deteriorate as the summer passes is almost more than Vicky can bear. To complicate matters, she finds herself as the center of attention for three very different boys.

Zachary Grey, the troubled and reckless boy Vicky met last summer, wants her all to himself as he grieves the loss of his mother. Leo Rodney has been just a friend for years, but the tragic loss of his father causes him to turn to Vicky for comfort—and romance. And then there’s Adam Eddington. Adam is only asking Vicky to help with his research on dolphins. But Adam—and the dolphins—may just be what Vicky needs to get through this heartbreaking summer.


 There is something so pure and magical about how Madeline L'engle combines science and religion and poetry into her writing.  Coming from the Bible Belt really polarizes religion and makes it very political (not that it isn't most anyways).  Whenever I go back to read a L'Engle novel it is so refreshing because it is about goodness and wisdom.  Novel ideas for the church as far as I can tell.  It's not about being right.  She also shows that science isn't a separate entity from all other subjects.  She is constantly blending science and religion, showing that it doesn't have to be one or the other.  Not only is science and religion perfectly married, but particularly in this book, although she mentions it many times in her Wrinkle in Time series as well, L'Engle argues that there doesn't need to be a divide between the more creative side of people and the more analytical side.  Vicky, who is a poet, comes from a family of doctors and scientists and is working on a scientific project with Adam on dolphins.  Originally she feels very much like an outsider because of this, but she becomes involved with the dolphin project and proves to be a key to understanding them.  Despite not being knowledgeable in the details and terminology of what's going on, she understands the big picture and is an immense help to the project.

I think one of the many, many reasons I have always loved this book so much is because Vicky and I are so similar.  I am not a poet by any means, although I have written some (rather terrible) poems.   But I am  a musician.  From the time we start learning about math/science and literature/history we are categorized as being very much part of one group or another.  I have always definitely been grouped with the latter one, but I've also always been extremely interested in science.  I love the abstract ideas that come with science, but I'm not terribly interested in the inner details and terminology that comes with it.  Vicky is the same way, and again L'Engle shows how well the two actually pair.  It's also interesting because the Austen family is both very well read and in general just very, very smart.   There are constant references to literature and classical music - in a way that Pamela Dean's Tam Lin tries to be (but Dean overshot her mark and that much reference packed in just bogged the book down).   It's done in just the right way.  If you understand the references, it really deepens your understanding of things, but the references are short and not necessary to understand what is going on, so it doesn't distract the reader if they don't get the references.  (I know this because over the past decade I've been reading this, clearly I have more literature and music knowledge to pull from.  And getting things I didn't before and who the people they are talking about when I didn't before is really cool.  And unlike Pamela Dean's these aren't super detailed or really out there).

This story is so much more than all these small parts I'm talking about.  It's mostly about growing up and discovering love and what it means, what our responsibilities to others are, it's about the meaning of life, and what dying means.  I have been through every stage of life Vicky goes through in this book.  No matter what age you are, there is at least one major point of this story that you will relate to.  And I know every time I pick this book up I will discover something new that means everything to me, something I may not have picked up yet because I haven't experienced yet.  There is something uniquely special about a book that not only have you loved since you were little, but that grows with you as you grow.  It helped a lot with a year in college that was really, really dark and I was just completely overwhelmed by...really just life.  By everything.  This book gets it...all the terrible, awful things that happen, but it's sounds corny, but this book is just so full of light.  And it really helped me deal with what I was going through, countless times whether it was as simple as a bad grade at school, or dealing with the death of a friend.  I could give you a long list of all the reasons I absolutely love this book, but instead I will leave you with some of my favourite quotes:

...I discovered that there is something almost more intimate about crying that way with someone than there is about kissing, and I knew I'd never again be able to think of Leo as nothing but a slob.

It was obvious he was making the funeral people feel frustrated, rejecting their plastic grass and their plastic dirt.  He was emphasizing that Commander Rodney's death was real, but this was less terrible than plastic pretense.

“If thou could'st empty all thyself 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 all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity
That when He comes He says This is enow Unto itself - 'twere better let it be
It is so small and full there is no room for me.” - Sir Thomas Brown

Rob was only seven.  Still young enough to talk about things you don't talk about, especially to someone who's dying.  But why don't you?  If I had a fatal disease I'd want people to talk to me about dying, instead of getting embarrassed and pretending I was going to get well.

Zachary's [eyes] were steel-grey, not sea-grey like Adam's, but metallic.  Well--Adam's eyes were grey, and Zachary's were gray, the way his last name is spelled.

"The obligations of normal human kindness--chesed, as the Hebrew has it--that we all owe.  But there's a king of vanity in thinking you can nurse the world.  There's a kind of vanity in goodness."

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
  All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,
  Driven by the spheres
There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness - Henry Vaughan

..."are you afraid...of dying?"
..."not so much of dying - I'm of afraid of annihilation.  Of not being."

I could honestly quote the whole book!  So much of the book just...IT'S EXACTLY HOW I FEEL.  It captures exactly how I felt the first time I read it, and it captures how I feel in the decade that has passed since that first reading.  The ending in particular is so moving, and I love how Madeline L'Engle's prose breaks down in structure, it fits the mood perfectly (I don't want to talk about it too much, on the off chance you haven't read it and plan to someday).  Some things, like the dialogue, date the book a bit, and all of the characters feel a bit older and more well-versed than I would expect an almost 16 year old to be, but I don't remember noticing that when I was younger.  But then when I was younger, I don't think I noticed that talking about the Bach Goldberg Variations was odd haha.

This is the first Austen book I read (in fact it may have been the first L'Engle book I read, I'm not sure if it was this or A Wrinkle in Time) and for a long time I didn't even realize it was part of a series.  I didn't discover this until high school and I didn't love the other books in the series nearly as much as this one.  I think part of this is simply because I discovered them so late.  I have this theory that books that affect us deeply when we are children are more potent somehow.  Perhaps it's because as children we don't know how to hold back, so we throw ourselves into things without reserve.  I've found that I HAVE to reread books I loved growing up.  It's a need, not a want.  As I got into high school I still found books I loved and reread, but there were fewer I needed to reread, and I'm not sure I've read any books (that weren't already part of a series) that I needed in a way I need books from my childhood.  This isn't to say I don't love books as much as I used to, I really don't have a better way to describe it.  Is it the same for you?


  1. I adore Madeline L'Engle so very very much. Have you read The Small Rain? It has a different feel than her Austin and Murray books, but it's truly beautiful.

  2. No I haven't! ....OH MY GOSH.

    Sorry I just looked it up, and I have A Severed Wasp, which I had no idea was linked to another book (probably because I haven't read it yet haha). Ahhhh I'm so excited! I am with you - I seriously love Madeleine L'Engle, she has been one of my all time favourite authors since I started reading chapter books!


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