“I didn’t hear the last lines because my mind stopped with A deep but dazzling darkness. And then it picked up the first poem he’d read, with eternity being a great ring of pure and endless light.
Grandfather looked at me.
“He’s great, this Vaughan guy,” I said.
A Ring of Endless Light is the fourth in the series of Austin family books by Madeleine L’Engle. A full dive into existential inquiry, along with splashes of young love, create an engaging read for those who enjoy both the deep and shallow ends of the young adult literary pool. The author, L’Engle, is never flippant. In this novel, there are waves of childlike faith, angst-ridden doubt, and more above-average intellectual conversation amongst teenagers than I have ever witnessed in real life.
While being light-years more intelligent than most teenagers, whether real or fictionalized, Vicky Austin is a fairly sympathetic protagonist. Every once in a while, the reader may feel she should trade in some of her book smarts for street ones, but since she is facing a mature issue—death—throughout most of the story, she ought to be imperfect and inconsistent. She is a typical teen—stubborn, full of self-doubt, and bound to learn through experience.
The Austin family is unlike any family I’ve ever known. They discuss poetry, the mystery of heaven, and the avoidance of inverse sexism—all after singing folk songs with lyrics from Shakespeare after dinner. They are supportive, understanding, and intelligent, respecting both the scientific and the sacred.
Any scene with Vicky’s grandfather is bound to be profound. The private conversations Vicky has with her grandfather, who is dying from leukemia, are beautiful. She feels the most herself around him and his stalwart faith is a firm sounding board for her fledgling spiritual thoughts. Poetry gets a pedestal to stand on in this novel, both by highlighting quotes from poets (for example: Henry Vaughan, from which the title and theme are borrowed), and by emphasizing Vicky’s own forays into line and verse. Faith is a mystery, as is death. Poetry is a natural vehicle for these metaphysical thoughts.
Madeleine L’Engle’s trademark mixing of both science and faith in all her novels is present here as well. The science in A Ring of Endless Light is introduced through the dolphin research done at the Marine Biology Station, where the communication skills of cetaceans are studied. Vicky finds herself with an uncanny ability to communicate with dolphins—a supernatural ability. The faith comes through with the effect of the Austin’s patriarch’s impending death. Both the science and the faith are presented as gifts from God. This accomplishment is a consistent gift of L’Engle’s.
And last—but not least—the romance. The awkward, emotional teenage variety. Vicky finds herself garnering attention from three very different young men. She is already at turmoil and petty drama is really beneath her. Boys! Fortunately, Vicky is not a silly girl. The boy drama doesn’t hold her underwater for long.
One of my favorite books of all time, A Ring of Endless Light, is special and inspiring for those who desire their brains to accompany their hearts in the exploration of the mysterious, spiritual, and ontological.
“…I remembered last year, when he was on a religious kick and was telling us exactly what God is like, Grandfather had said quietly—not rebukingly, just quietly—“As St. Augustine says: if you think you understand, it isn’t God.”
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