Sunday, January 4, 2015

Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle

As part of giving up library reading for the month of January, I've been spending lots of my perusing my own bookshelves.  I have quite a collection of children's books from my own childhood and one that I re-read on a whim during this Christmas vacation was Meet the Austins.  Pretty much everybody I know has read and loved this dear book by Madeleine L'Engle.  If you haven't read this, I am, frankly, shocked.  You must go at once and read it.
I think this might be an original.  See the 60s hair and the mother below in her 60s swing coat?



Meet the Austins is narrated by 12 year old Vicky Austin.  Right on the cusp of adolescence, Vicky, along with her charming family-Her father, mother, older brother, John, younger sister, Suzy, and younger brother, Rob, as well as a kindly bachelor uncle and a doting adopted aunt-experience a whirlwind series of events.

It all starts after a description of a lovely day that completely convinced me of L'Engle's writing powers before the book really started.  This description was so lovingly written that I instantly flashed back to so many evenings like this in my own childhood.  Everybody roaring around, dinner cooking, the mad race to the telephone every time it rings.  And then everything comes to a standstill when Aunt Elena, mother's roommate from boarding school, calls and tells them that her husband is dead in a plane crash, along with his copilot who has left a little girl.

Of course, the Austins agree to take in the little girl, Maggy, since Elena, who was made her godmother, is a concert pianist about to go on tour.  Maggy completely upsets the family's daily life by turning out to be a train wreck of a child.  But, over time, she comes to find a home with the loving Austins.

Along the way, there are funny and charming family stories.  There is one, in particular, that made me laugh out loud in which the whole family dresses eccentrically to shock one of the uncle's snobbish girlfriends.  The Austins have all kinds of adventures while getting used to the shell-shocked Maggy, from picnics to stargazing to a trip to see the grandfather who lives in a barn.

One of the reasons I love this book so much is that it is a direct refutation of Hemingway's famous quote about unhappy families, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  This book shows that, no, happy families are different and interesting and absorbing.  To be miserable does not necessarily mean that one is romantic or interesting or enjoyable to read about.

The story is also interestingly written.  It's written exactly like a child telling you a (slightly longwinded) life story.  Of course there's a plot and direction and flow to the book in a way that a child's story wouldn't, but there is something about the quality of the writing that is so childlike.  For one thing, everything is presented exactly at face value without a lot of analysis on the part of the narrator.  Also, the sentences are kind of run-on.  It's not in a bad-writing-run-on-sentence kind of way, but in a child talking kind of way.  Just think about the last conversation you had with a 12 year old.  That's what the book reads like.  But trust me, it's charming, not annoying.

Some interesting things stood out reading this book this time through.  The main thing was my perception of Maggy.  Now, realize that I last read this book in 6th grade, maybe.  I absolutely despised Maggy and was truly enraged at how she consumed the Austin family life.  This time around, I ached for her lack of family and her brattiness simply read as a very sad, neglected little girl.  Also, there were some pretty dated discussions and references (this book was published in 1960) that I thought were funny reading this time around that I never would have thought to notice back whenever I first read this.

This book is so beautifully told, so funny and poignant, there is just no way you can go through your whole life and not pick up this book at least once.  If you have a child in your life, this would make an absolutely marvelous read aloud.  And if not, or even if you do, you must read this for yourself.


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