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.
A Ring of Endless Light continues to be one of my all-time favorite books. I probably first read it around the age of 12. I’m pretty sure I read A Wrinkle in Time first, a required in-class reading in 5th grade Language Arts class, but I was aware of A Ring of Endless Light before Wrinkle because I had seen the 2002 Disney Channel Original Movie book-to-movie adaption. While I loved it then, I’m not really sure it holds up in my eyes. The movie was very different from the book and not really in a way that I can defend.
With summer approaching, I wanted to give this book a reread and shine a spot-light on this YA classic in the hope that it would find new readers. I don’t feel like there’s anything quite like it being published these days and feel like it still has a lot to offer new generations of young adults.
I feel like people may be more familiar with A Wrinkle in Time, the science fiction adventure. A Ring of Endless Light has some speculative science but all together is grounded in the real world with real-life challenges that people have to face, like losing loved ones and choosing how to live one’s life. Like Meg, Vicky is at an age where she questions everything that is happening around her and finds herself thrust into situations she isn’t fully ready for.
“It’s hard to let go anything we love. We live in a world which teaches us to clutch. But when we clutch we’re left with a fistful of ashes.”
Taking place over the course of a summer, this novel is about Vicky Austin and her family trying to enjoy their remaining time with her grandfather who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Vicky is asked to be available at home to support her mother during the difficult time, but her father still fully supports each of his children taking on a summer project of some sort.
Vicky’s summer project becomes helping Adam Eddington, a summer intern at the local marine biology center, with his top-secret research involving dolphin communication. While he has the mind of a scientist, he recognizes the benefit of a poet’s perspective. They are both surprised to find just how well his dolphins take to her and how integral she becomes to his research.
While she grows closer to Adam, the boy who understands her but begins to keep her at an arm’s distance, she is also grappling with her evolving relationships to two others she’s known for longer. She finds herself no longer so revolted by Leo, the son of a recently deceased family friend, while at the same time having to navigate his clumsy romantic advances. She’s also juggling the rich, troubled Zachary Grey, who keeps showing up out of nowhere with a desire to disrupt her peaceful existence.
It might sound like a soap opera, but I promise it’s not!
Throughout the book, Vicky is learning how to be a good friend and a shoulder to learn on while dealing with grief herself. In this novel she is not just supporting Leo and Zachary, but also watching grandfather deteriorate and be there for her mother. At this crucial time, she’s also renegotiating her relationships to all her siblings: the brother who is beginning to see her as a equal, the brother who is not a baby anymore, and the sister who needs more help than she lets on.
I love this book so much, it’s one that I almost wish I could hide away from the rest of the world and never share, for fear that outsiders could change the way I see this book. I know that there are people out there who might accuse this book of being sentimental (I think it toes the line perfectly) or religious (I think it supports faith but also a critical and open mind).
I’ve long admired L’Engle’s work not just for her storytelling ability or the lovable characters she writes but also for the way that all her books are interconnected. In A Ring of Endless Light, you can get a sense that it is L’Engle speaking through her characters when Vicky says, “Grandfather says there is no such thing as coincidence” and he elaborates, “The pattern is closely woven.”
For someone very familiar with her work, it seems to be a nod at her tendency to keep her novels set into the families she has created, namely the Murray-O’Keefes and the Austins. Because of the drastically different adventures these two families face, one could naturally expect them to live in alternative universes. What was so remarkable to me as a child was seeing that so many characters from her novels bounce from book to book, bridging these different worlds.
I feel like L’Engle did what Marvel Studios have sought to do since the first Iron Man (2008) movie, create stories that can stand alone but which have characters flit between each one uniting into something magnificent. L’Engle never had an Avengers-like culminating piece, but I still love looking at the family tree above and marveling (pun intended) at the world she created in her body of work, particularly as her novels were contemporary YA.
Yes, there was often a smidgen of science fiction/the supernatural embedded into her stories, but for me her novels stand out as a celebration of a close-knit nurturing family in a crazy, sometimes mean world. I feel like it might have been radical when these books were first coming out, given Zachary Gray’s morbid fascination with these families. I think they are more radical now in a time where our ideas of what makes a happy family have expanded.
Something else I always admired of L’Engles’ work is her integration of words of wisdom from famous literary, scientific, and spiritual figures. Her books have always seemed like a synthesis of many different ideas and academic field, which I love. I can’t really think of any YA authors who do this kind of thing right now. (That being said, feel free to share any authors think are integrating ideas from different disciplines down below!)
When I read this book, over a month ago now, I decided I wanted to revisit more of my favorite Madeleine L’Engle works that involve mysteries, science, and conspiracies. For that reason, I held back from publishing this review right away, so I could introduce my intentions for the next few book reviews that you will see on this blog this month.
Next week on Betwined Reads I will have my book reviews for The Arm of the Starfish and Troubling a Star, the two other L’Engle works that feature the marine biology-themed adventures of Adam Eddington. And the following week I will publish my reviews of the two more middle grade novels about kids uncovering international conspiracies in Dragons in the Waters and The Young Unicorns.
Have you read A Ring of Endless Light? If so, what’d you think?!