Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Book Review: A Ring of Endless Light

As I have re-read and reviewed Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet for my blog, I have to admit that I’ve found most of the series less than thrilling. The exception has been A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which I really enjoyed and gave a four star rating. I was hesitant to pick up another on of L’Engle’s novels, but A Ring of Endless Light is a Newbery Honor book and the reviews were so positive all around that I decided to give the author one more shot – and I’m incredibly glad that I did. Out of all five of her novels that I’ve read, A Ring of Endless Light is by far my favorite; it is a moving, well-written story about a young girl trying to come to grips with tragedy, illness and death over the summer before her sixteenth birthday. This isn’t the same kind of fantasy/science fiction novel for children as A Wrinkle in Time and the rest of L’Engle’s Time Quintet; this is a sophisticated novel that wrestles with a lot of questions about the meaning of life and the existence of God.

Vicky Austin feels surrounded and overwhelmed by death. She and her family have come to Seven Bay Island to spend the summer with her grandfather, who is dying of leukemia. Vicky realizes that her father, who is a doctor, does not expect her beloved grandfather to live longer than these few summer months. The idea of loosing someone so close to her would be difficult enough for any young girl, but Vicky is quickly confronted with the deaths of several other people. Commander Rodney, a close family friend, is killed in a boating accident only a week after the Austin family arrives on the island. The Commander’s son Leo quickly turns to Vicky for comfort, and although she doesn’t want to have a romantic relationship with him, she wants to support him as a friend. Then her ex-boyfriend Zachary comes to see her, revealing that his mother has been killed in a car accident and that he has tried to commit suicide. He, too, needs Vicky’s support, but begins to reveal a manic, self-destructive side that frightens her.

While both of these boys want Vicky’s emotional support, neither one of them is able to offer her the kind of comfort that she needs as she watches her grandfather deteriorate – but there is a third young man who steps into the picture. Adam works with Vicky’s older brother John and is studying to be a marine biologist; he seems to be a much more stable and supportive guy who understands Vicky’s confusion and grief. As Vicky begins to help Adam with his summer project, studying the communication between humans and dolphins, the two grow closer. But Vicky soon realizes that Adam, too, has experienced death and needs to grieve.

Essentially, Vicky is caught between all three guys as they vie for her attention – but this novel is far from being a turgid teenage soap opera. It is a thoughtful picture of how a stable, loving family must cope with the loss of a beloved grandparent as he comes closer and closer to death. Having just recently lost both my grandparents, with whom I was very close, this novel hit me right in the heart/gut. I was able to relate to the medical emergencies, the worry, the desire to make the person(s) that you love more comfortable, and to allow them to die with dignity. I was also able to relate to all the questions that this situation raised for Vicky – about the meaning of life, the acceptance of death, and the existence of God. She is also dealing with the normal questions of a sixteen year old girl throughout the novel – what kind of a relationship she wants with a guy, what kinds of directions she should pursue in her life. I deeply sympathized with Vicky as she struggled through all of this – and of course was rooting for her relationship with the stable and thoughtful Adam to develop in such a way that Vicky would find the support that she needed. I thought the way that she genuinely desired to be a friend to the other two boys in the midst of their own pain, and therefore found herself overwhelmed by all the tragedy and death, was a realistic picture of what happens when you step out into the world and begin experiencing these things for the first time.

Even though there are so many things going on in the novel, it is easy to follow and deeply moving at the same time. As I already mentioned, I am not fond of many of L’Engle’s novels, partially because the plotting and writing do not seem very coherent to me at times, but that is not an issue in this novel at all. It is as though with A Ring of Endless Light, L’Engle finally came into her own. She is writing to an older group of readers, which she is able to do quite well – I remember struggling with a lot of questions about life and God when I was sixteen, and it is wonderful to see an author take the uncertainties of an adolescent seriously. L’Engle has also toned down the science fiction aspects of her writing so that they complement the story, but do not overwhelm the emotional considerations or seem too incredible to swallow. Overall, I cannot reiterate enough that A Ring of Endless Light is a somewhat painful but beautiful novel – one that I believe can be appreciated by a much wider audience than her Time Quintet. Go pick this one up at the bookstore as soon as possible.

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