A Ring of Endless Light is a book not as many readers seem to be familiar with, even though the author is so well known for A Wrinkle in Time. We’re trying to help change that! This book is realistic fiction with an element of science fiction, and even if you weren’t able to read along with us this month, we hope that the discussion below encourages you to check it out in the future. As always, there will be some spoilers, however.
Wendy: I’ve loved this book since I was a teenager, but it’s been years since I read it. To this day, I still think of “resilient pewter” whenever I see a dolphin! And it’s also why I was veering between marine biology and paleontology for a long time. (Spoiler alert: I went into neither. Alas.)
Kim: I had never read it before! A Wrinkle In Time is the only other L’Engle book I’ve read, and that only last year. Thankfully I enjoyed this one much more than Wrinkle. But I fully admit that probably everything I liked about this book was Adam Eddington. Also, the dolphins were cute. Wendy, why are we not paleontologists? I wanted to be one because of Jurassic Park. It’s not too late for us!!!
Layla: I was a huge Madeleine L’Engle fan as a young adult, so I’ve read this book many a time before. (Although this was not my favorite Vicky Austin story! My fave was Troubling a Star, which is the one where she ends up in Antarctica on, like, an ice floe. FOR REASONS.) I haven’t picked up A Ring of Endless Light in at least ten years, though, and it was interesting to re-read it as someone who isn’t 15-going-on-16 anymore.
Wendy: I also love the first book about the Austins, though it’s a much simpler, more pleasantly ordinary type of book. I don’t remember the others at all, but your description of TAS makes me want to read it!
Layla: Weirdly, I don’t remember Meet the Austins at all. I have much more vivid memories of the ones where crazy shit went down. (Troubling a Star and The Young Unicorns, which, um, just go look at the Wikipedia entry for that one, you guys. There are lasers and corrupt bishops and a gang called the Alphabats.) As a teenager, I was really focused on Vicky’s love interests (particularly Adam); as an adult, the stuff around death and dying spoke to me more.
Kim: I have read that Wikipedia entry (thanks, Layla!) and I would just like to say I would love to be a member of the Alphabats. Please is it my only wish in life.
Wendy: Adam Eddington was my very first book boyfriend, I think. How could you resist a boy who takes you to swim with dolphins and sits and talks with you by moonlight about philosophy and science and poetry and has grey eyes that look lit from within? I don’t know that there has ever been another fictional guy (and few real ones) who listens so very intently to a girl, and does so without judgment. And with plenty of openness and matter-of-fact encouragement.
Layla: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s true of lots of characters in this book. I was struck by her conversations with John, Rob, Suzy, and her grandfather as well – I felt like many of the conversations modeled this sort of encouragement and active listening.
Wendy: Very true. I enjoyed this part of the book, because my relationship with my mother and my friends in high school was very much like this.
Layla: Although Adam is swoon-worthy, I still kinda think he is too old for Vicky.
Wendy: He is. But he knows that, which is why things don’t go very far in this book–I have a lot of respect for him for that. She’s an old soul, but still very young and inexperienced. I do wonder why L’Engle made her protagonist so young, though–Vicky could’ve been 18 and the book wouldn’t have been different at all, except for the ick factor.
Layla: Yes! Vicky could have easily been older and I would have been a lot happier. (I suspect it’s precisely because she does want Vicky in between childhood and adulthood for psychic dolphin reasons.) As a fifteen year-old, it didn’t bug me at all, but as an adult, I’m less into it. It’s not so much the age gap (four years) as it is where she’s at in her life. Vicky is still trying to figure herself out, where Adam knows where he’s going to be for the next ten years (it’s grad school. He’s going to be in grad school forever. I’m not crying, you’re crying).
Kim: Adam was my favorite character in the entire book (duh!). I am sad because the age difference kept me from fully realizing the swoon but their connection was palpable and I loved that it flowed through them both beyond words.
Wendy: I am calling this The Summer of Death. Because while I remember this being a book very much about death and dying, it was mostly related to Vicky’s grandfather and Commander Rodney, and the little dolphin pup. It captures the somber, despairing feelings as well as the joyous, tearful, guilty ones you experience during these times. My father was ill most of my life, and passed away right after college, so much of this felt very familiar. Come to think of it, the worst parts of his illness were around the time that I first read this.
As an adult, I’m struck by how very heavy this book is in its content and its themes, however–perhaps too much so, in parts. Because while I love the fact that this book takes its time to ruminate on these serious subjects, I think there might be a few too many deaths and serious injuries thrown into this mix. (Is that fair, though, when this didn’t bother me as a teenager?) We should tally them up, hah. I just know by the end, after the major deaths/illnesses we’ve already talked about along with Zachary’s death wish, having Binnie and Jeb to also contend with, it felt like a lot for the time span of a couple of months. MAYBE THE AUSTINS ARE CAUSING ALL THIS.
Layla: Ok. The final countdown. Commander Rodney, Grandfather, Zachary’s mom (in the background), Zachary, dolphin pup, Jeb’s dead family (in the background), Adam’s friend Josiah (in the background), Jeb, Binnie … am I missing anyone? Also those baby swallows were constantly in peril! Anyway, that’s nine people and one dolphin pup. The shadow of death is over everything. EVERYTHING. It’s like that moment in Grey’s Anatomy when Cristina Yang recounts all of the terrible things that have happened to them at Seattle Grace, and it’s like, huh, maybe the hospital is haunted or something. (To be honest, if my memory of the other Austin books serve, that family is *constantly* struggling to stay out of danger. Their year in NY precedes this book, and let me tell you, they do not emerge unscathed.)
On the death and dying front, I was really moved by Suzy’s conversation with Vicky over their grandfather’s illness. To me, that perfectly captured the sometimes contentious relationship between siblings, as well as how heartbreaking it is to deal with the illness of a loved one (i.e., Suzy feels like she can’t be around, even though she loves her grandfather, and is dealing with so much guilt – especially because she wants to be a doctor someday).
Kim: Yes, definitely by the end (and they all seem to really just pile on up there at the end) all of the death and grief was just really overbearing for me too. I think the grief of just one ailing family member is more than enough grief for one book. When I was 16 my grandmother had a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side and bedridden for the final few short years of her life. It was a difficult time for my family, as you can imagine, and incredibly difficult for me to deal with as a teenager. I have long been looking for a YA book that deals with the illness and loss of an elderly loved one so I was so glad to see that here. It didn’t have quite the emotional or philosophical impact as I would’ve liked but I do agree with you, Layla. I was really affected by Suzy’s speech too. I remember having all of those feelings, especially the guilt and confliction, of not always being able to, or even wanting to be there. It’s hard stuff. This would have been a great book for me to read as a teen.
Wendy: Did you guys catch the reference to Calvin O’Keefe? I was thrilled by that, even though I vaguely remembered that L’Engle had connected the Austins to the O’Keefes. Adam worked with Professor O’Keefe in The Arm of the Starfish, which is a book I remember not liking as much–L’Engle tries her hand with a thriller, and it wasn’t as appealing to me as the everyday warmth of the Austin stories. How wonderful is Vicky’s family, by the way? Particularly these parents who read Shakespeare after dinner and sing, and this grandfather who turns a barn into a house and builds bookshelves in them? We don’t spend much time with them, and yet every character in the book had their own lives that you wonder about. Her grandfather was especially dear, with his “luminous” smile and gentle wisdom–I felt a wonderful glow whenever he was near. The moments when he starts hemorrhaging and losing his memory are genuinely scary and sad.
Layla: I did catch that! I was amused that L’Engle puts him side by side with Einstein, though. (All the great scientists who come to know things in a flash! That, by the way, always made me hopeful that someday I would know things like that. Intuitively, instantly, without looking for it.) Anyway, apparently Zachary Gray and Adam Eddington exist in books in both universes? Because Adam knows O’Keefe through his scientific work or something, and I think Zachary tries to put the moves on O’Keefe’s daughter. Again, haven’t read the rest of the series in years, so this all may be wrong, but I tried to back it up with (wikipedia) research. It’s funny that we remember the Austin books so differently – but this is probably why I can’t remember Meet the Austins at all but have fond memories of the ones that are more crazysauce thrillers. ;)
I liked the family’s habit of reading aloud (Joseph Fielding and Shakespeare! awesome), as well as her grandfather’s love of early modern poetry. But that’s my area of study, so I got a tiny kick of seeing them talk about Browne and Donne and Vaughan. I will say that initially I thought her family was being way too hard on Zachary (in particular, their horror over his mother’s having been cryogenically frozen). Although he is eventually revealed to be a total creeper, I really wanted them to extend their warmth and hospitality to him in ways they never did. I mean, come on, his mom has just died, you guys! And they’re like, “Well, well, here’s that bad penny Zachary again.”
Wendy: I was surprised they did not make more of an effort with him too, actually. I suppose you’re to infer that they saw something in him instinctively that made them wary, and they’re later proved right? But Vicky saw something in him too, that perhaps no one else did.
Kim: Oh I had very, very little patience or tolerance for Zachary. I mean, I understood his inner pain and that there is more going on with him than just being some random rich douchebag. I actually really admire Vicky a lot for having so much more patience and understanding for this character than I did. Though sometimes I just wanted to ask her whyyyyy she keeps getting in a car with that guy. He repeatedly tries to run people over! Stop that. Also, I hated how aggressive he was with her sexually, but I adored how level headed and proficiently Vicky was able to stand her ground and say no.
Layla: One moment I loved, though, was when Vicky’s grandfather has that conversation about what should and should not be her burden in her dealings with Zachary, i.e., that just because someone asks you to save them and makes you responsible for their welfare, does not mean that you actually are. I thought this was wonderful and wish I’d taken this to heart more as a teen. Good lesson, grandfather!
Wendy: Yes, and I liked how that loops back at the end, when he asks something of her (in a moment when he was not himself) that could not be her responsibility. I’m curious how you both responded to the religious undercurrent in this book. L’Engle, of course, often explored Christian themes and beliefs in her work, and they are strongly present in this one. As a rather neutral party in these types of discussions, I find her viewpoint one that mostly does not seem judgmental or exclusionary, but rather welcoming and patient. And what’s very appealing to me is the questioning nature of the philosophical and scientific discussions in tandem with that.
Kim: Well, as typical for me, I found the Christian themes too much for my tastes. I liked the philosophical and scientific discussions much better (and she writes them with much poetry!), but there wasn’t really anything new to add to either of those topics in this book for me. I liked this story best when it was about character work and the connection between people.
Layla: I still found the book to be preachy in places (and, full disclosure, I do have a horse in this race as a person of faith).
Layla: I did like the articulation of a faith that is at least in theory open to not knowing (in an exploratory sense) rather than certainty. There’s that moment, for example, where Vicky’s grandfather tells Leo that if he thinks he understands God, it isn’t God. In practice in the book, though, I really wanted there to be some middle ground; it felt to me as if everyone is either on the path to figuring out their relationship to God or a total nihilist (because being a nihilist means that of course you make risky, terrible decisions in planes and deep-freeze your mom and try to get 15 year-olds drunk). I also hope to never be the kind of person who quotes St. Augustine to teenagers who are still trying to figure their shit out, too, though, btw. :) And as for other types of preachiness, Mrs. Austin’s dismissal of Suzy’s insistence that the word “mankind” is problematic really irked me. It’s not “inverse sexism” for Suzy to question whether or not “mankind” presumes male-ness as a default state.
Wendy: Well, the thing is–I don’t think all books need to present a middle ground. These are the author’s beliefs, and that’s what she chose to write about, so while I don’t necessarily agree with all points of her faith and philosophy, I also don’t expect her to necessarily provide counterbalance within this context. It didn’t cross over into hammering in for me the way certain other YA books have, though as you like to say, everyone’s mileage varies on topics like these. And I did like Mrs. Austin’s charge of inverse sexism when Suzy began questioning her mother’s choices to stay home and raise her family, because that I still see a lot of that sort of thing. But yes, I understand the annoyance over the “mankind” point, as well as the quoting. We all have been with family members or acquaintances. who have done this sort of thing.
Layla: Yeah. I guess I just feel like the Austins’ articulation of their faith makes it seem like it’s something that’s inclusive and open to folks figuring out their faith (or total lack thereof) in their own good time. It’s not that L’Engle needs to present an alternative viewpoint, but I do wish that, like, the only character who explicitly isn’t a believer wasn’t also the worst human being in the book. Anyhow! Let’s talk about Vicky’s love connections …
Wendy: You’re right, Zachary’s Immoralists were presented in a very unattractive and loony-bin way; quite judgmental, in fact. But oh, the love rectangle. Which isn’t really a true rectangle, but there are indeed three boys, which is of course very messy. I obviously think the sun rises and sets on Adam Eddington. Caress my hair and cross time and space when I need you pleeeeease.
Layla: Oh man, this also had me as an adolescent. Pet my hair while we sit on the beach and take me dolphin-riding and I am yours forever. Things I liked: that Vicky is able to set boundaries with all of her suitors and they are pretty much respected. That is awesome. So, for example, that she’s able to hang out with Leo and not feel like she owes him anything (because she doesn’t) just because he likes her.
Wendy: I think Leo’s attraction to Vicky was unnecessarily drawn out. I understand having a bit of history there, perhaps, but I don’t think his relationship to her contributed significantly to the story or to her personal growth, so why are we dealing with his sloppy kisses? Zachary is clearly a hot mess, though I was surprised to find that as an adult, I felt more sympathetic to him than I did as a teenager. I mean, I was annoyed and frustrated with him, but I also wondered more about his background and what was driving him to be so self-destructive. (She also puts up with him for too long, but I also understand the appeal of being with someone where you have all these new experiences. And when it counted, she did right.) I think he is turned into a rather typical jerk in the end, which was disappointing–I wonder if he shows up again in later Austin books? But I suppose we don’t always know the histories and motivations of all the people who come into our lives.
Layla: So, as I indicated earlier, Zachary does show up in later books and tries to date Polly, Calvin and Meg’s daughter. I think he’s very much the same there – reckless, irresponsible, death-wish-y. And no one likes him. I don’t know that he shows up in another Austin novel, though, since the next one in line – Troubling a Star – is more about Vicky and Adam (for all you Vicky / Adam shippers out there, there are letters and penguins and ice floes). My feelings about Zachary are complicated. I thought he was the worst as a teen, but I do have more sympathy towards him now: he’s obviously in a lot of pain and seems to get very little emotional support from his family and friends. That said, it’s screwy that he’s trying to make a fifteen year-old responsible for helping him deal with his feels. And, in addition to this, he’s 20 and tries to get Vicky to drink and have sex with him. No no no no. I think Vicky deals well with him, though – far better than I would’ve as a fifteen year-old.
Wendy: Agreed. Whatever was going on in his background, he really was awful. NO MEANS NO, ZACHARY. Vicky definitely dealt with it better than most teenagers could have.
Also–while I think the romantic Leo part should’ve been nixed, I didn’t really go nuts over Vicky “juggling” her suitors. Unlike the way a lot of romantic entanglements are portrayed, her interactions with these guys are based on in-depth conversations and activities, so that they were almost friend-like outings, if that makes sense? There’s definitely romantic interest and physical attraction on her part, but there’s such a focus on character and intellectual interest that it didn’t feel like the typical shallow, groan-worthy machinations.
Layla: Yeah! I also like that it’s totally cool that Vicky is maybe seeing three guys at once (and that, sometimes, Leo gets to come on her dates with Zachary … awkweird). And that her relationships with all of them go beyond thinking about their dreamy grey eyes (differently dreamy), but seem to be genuinely about figuring out how compatible they are as friends / possible partners.
Wendy: Yes! While I am not normally a fan of too much bouncing back and forth between romantic interests, I think as it’s portrayed here, it’s actually very healthy that she is exploring her options and what she wants out of a relationship, as well as not becoming too committed. The undying “meant to be” love that we often see in YA books now is sometimes problematic, actually–not many of us end up with the person we crushed on in high school, and often those all-consuming love stories also exclude thoughts of anything else, like education and family and self-growth. I like the balance here.
Layla: What do we want? Psychic dolphin times. When do we want it? NOW. Oh man, this was all I wanted from life when I first read A Ring of Endless Light. I grew up in South Florida and was at the beach constantly, so it seemed like this dream could become a reality for me. Alas, it never did. I did have a manatee encounter but it was not nearly as magical. (No rides, no psychic connection, and I thought it was a shark so I ran out of the water screaming). As an adult reader, though, Vicky’s ability to mind-meld with dolphins and Adam drags this book into the realm of science-fiction for me. But I still loved reading about Vicky’s dolphin adventures – still totally the highlight of this book for me. Although I imagine the dolphins’ version of time as basically Lisa Frank’s rendition of dolphins. (Trippy colors! Bright lights! Dolphins leaping in tandem! THIS IS KAIROS.)
Wendy: I love manatees! I’m so jealous of your shrieking encounter. I also love the dolphin telepathy and playful dolphin spankings and dazzling dolphin rides, I still daydream fondly whenever I see one. Which here in California, is quite often when you’re at the beach, I didn’t think that was a real thing. The dolphins definitely made this book into something that wasn’t realistic fiction–I rather like that the lines are blurred in L’Engle’s books. It makes the magic or science fiction seem more real, and she integrates them well.
Layla: My sister and I were swimming in the ocean, talking about how our uncle was bitten by a shark (he was), and then all of the sudden, something brushed our legs and we saw a gray shape in the water. We screamed and ran for shore – from which safe distance, we saw that it was a manatee.
Wendy: This amuses me to no end, although I have great sympathy for the little Aldousany girls–and I hope your uncle was okay! We know some serious shark stories, too. I love the dolphiny times in this book so much, though–the wordless communication, this sense of perfect understanding between girl and beast, was so lovely and relatable. I especially loved the scene when Njord and Norbetta try to teach her about non-linear time. Pure magic.
Kim: I would just like to add that in Animorphs Book 4 (The Message) that Cassie morphs a dolphin and has a super great “communing with dolphins and whales scene” that was clearly written as a tribute to the scene where Norberta shows Vicky nonlinear time/space/the universe/everything. Do you think dolphins could show us how to bend space-time? Can they show us time travel?? Vicky doesn’t know her true worth!
Layla: Does anyone remember the Disney Channel Original Movie version of this? Mischa Barton as Vicky! Jared Padalecki as Zachary! and Ryan Merriman as Adam! And there were dolphins. I don’t remember much else about it except thinking it was not the greatest adaptation of the book; as I recall, the focus was on the love triangle and not as much about the death and dying.
Wendy: I never saw that, though I think it was gifted to me as a DVD? I was afraid to.
Kim: I do not recall that glorious majesty, but I do fondly recall The Thirteenth Year about a boy mermaid! It was great. Two thumbs up.
Wendy: This surprises the hell out of me, but this is one of the few cases where I’m downgrading my original rating slightly. I’ll always have a special spot for this book and love it intensely for its philosophy, its summer island setting, its joyous frolicking with dolphins, its loving and realistic depiction of death and dying, as well as for PERFECT ADAM EDDINGTON, but I’m taking off half a point for the untidy third love interest as well as the over-abundance of death and injury. Both of the latter elements are unnecessary, as the themes and story would have been just a strong and less cluttered without them. So, 4.5 stars. I know, sooooo harsh. It’s probably realistically a 4 in terms of writing execution, but I also have to factor in the desperate love that teenage Wendy felt for these books during her formative years.
Layla: I’ll say 4 stars. I loved this more as a teenager. I think I might have liked this book slightly more if Vicky had been a senior in high school or a college freshman, to be honest. As it was, I just wanted to lift her up out of the novel so she didn’t have to deal with any more death or any more 20 year-olds putting the moves on her. She’s so very young. And she’s resilient and lovely, but still, what a way to spend your summer vacation. Also, thanks for introducing teens to Vaughan’s poetry, book. Good job.
Kim: 3.5 stars As a teenager I would’ve liked it more, but as an adult I don’t find anything particularly inspiring or interesting in the book’s philosophy and the love interests really weighed the story down for me. The book does have its moments, though! Mostly around Adam being adorable, and some of the philosophical moments are beautifully written. Sadly, I think I just missed out on the L’Engle train as a youth and my blocked off adult brain cannot commune with her books.
So here is why Kim voted for this book for our readalong next month….
Kim: My first introduction to survivalist fiction and the reason that I love it still! I can so vividly recall certain exact passages from this book, and I’ve only read it once and then when I was 11. I recently skimmed it a bit when it got returned at the library and I was so relieved to see that I still thrilled and was repulsed at the exact same passages I remembered. There is a lot of gritty, gruesome, and harrowing stuff in Hatchet and I love the book for not shying away from the more horrifying elements of survival. I cannot wait to read it with everyone!
Author: Gary Paulsen
Discussion Date: Friday, May 29th
Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is on his way to visit his father when the single-engine plane in which he is flying crashes. Suddenly, Brian finds himself alone in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but a tattered Windbreaker and the hatchet his mother gave him as a present — and the dreadful secret that has been tearing him apart since his parent’s divorce. But now Brian has no time for anger, self pity, or despair — it will take all his know-how and determination, and more courage than he knew he possessed, to survive.
For twenty years Gary Paulsen’s award-winning contemporary classic has been the survival story with which all others are compared. This new edition, with a reading group guide, will introduce a new generation of readers to this page-turning, heart-stopping adventure.
It’s a short book, so it should take us no time at all to do this one! The paperback is just $6 and the Kindle edition is just a dollar more, but this title is a Newbery Honor book and therefore likely readily available in libraries.
If you’d like to get a head start on June’s book, we’ll be reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee in honor of the long-lost sequel releasing this summer! And if you really want to plan ahead, here is a visual clue to July’s book.
Have you read A Ring of Endless Light or any of the other Austin Chronicles? Were you as pleased with or as bothered by the same elements we were?