A Ring of Endless Light, the fourth novel in Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin famly series, opens, appropriately enough, with a funeral. I say appropriately, because this is a novel of death, and our responses to it. And also, telepathic dolphins. It is one of her best books.
Not only are the Austins dealing with the death of a family friend, but they are also watching the terminal illness of their kindly, beloved grandfather. L’Engle does not shy away from the messiness and guilt and anger and confusion and the sudden and terrifying hospitalizations that can occur during these last days, or the way the dying can both fear and welcome death. Vicky has been told that her grandfather is dying, and thinks she accepts it, but thinking she accepts it is a long way from actually accepting it. She writes some not really good poems (L’Engle does a remarkably accurate job of imitating a 16-year-old’s poetry accurately, although I suspect these may be some of L’Engle’s own teenage pieces, drudged up for this book) but they are only somewhat helpful.
Partly to distract herself, she finds herself sort of dating three guys about her own age, all of whom are having their own problems with death. Leo Rodney is dealing with the recent death of his father (the funeral at the start of the book). Adam Eddington is still grieving the events in The Arm of the Starfish. (Fair warning: L’Engle pretty much retells the entire plot, including the end, of that book in the middle of this one, so those trying to avoid spoilers should read Starfish first, with my assurances that Endless Light is a much, much better book.)
This summer, Adam has turned from starfish to dolphins, working both with a group of dolphins in captivity and with a pod of wild dolphins, attempting to learn their communication techniques. He invites Vicky to work with him, and—in the fantasy/science fiction bit of the novel—she finds that she can communicate with them telepathically, in passages filled with joy and poetry. (Although a couple of quibbles: both manatees and dugongs are also descended from land mammals that returned to the sea, and since L’Engle wrote this book we have learned considerably more about dolphin behavior in the wild, including the sad fact that bottlenose dolphins are absolutely capable of fighting with each other and sexually harassing and raping female dolphins, and are thus not exactly the peaceful species she presents here.)
Unfortunately, the third guy in Vicky’s life is Zachary Gray. In the comments on Zachary’s first appearance, we agreed that he might well be L’Engle’s most irritating character, and he certainly lives down to that in this book. The family friend, as it turns out, died while attempting to rescue Zachary from a suicide attempt. Zachary may not be directly responsible (the specific cause of death was cardiac arrest), and he, too, is dealing with the recent death of his mother (a car accident with a strong implication of suicide). Zachary then spends the rest of the book making everything about him, pressuring Vicky to go further with making out and sex than she is comfortable with (as, to be fair, does Leo). He is certainly willing to spend money on Vicky, taking her out to expensive country clubs and up on private planes, and he does rush Vicky to the hospital when her grandfather is taken there. But I still find her wish to spend any time with him inexplicable, particularly after he almost causes a collision with a jet airline in his ongoing need to endanger himself and others, especially since, hello, other potential boyfriends are helping you get the blood your grandfather needs for his blood transfusion and introducing you to telepathic dolphins.
Excuse me while I head thunk for a moment.
But if I find Vicky’s interest in Zachary inexplicable, and excusable only because she is going through a decidedly rough time, I find the romance otherwise very well handled—probably better here than in any of L’Engle’s other books. Vicky, like any teenager, is confused, particularly by her different feelings for the guys, not understanding why she feels the ongoing attraction to Zachary (no one does, Vicky!) but knowing it is there; infuriated and hopeful that Adam keeps coming closer and drawing away, and not understanding why she has no attraction to Leo. L’Engle makes it clear that the 15 (nearly 16) year old Vicky is very definitely interested in making out and possibly having sex with at least two of these guys, but at the same time, is not quite ready to do much more than kissing—and this is okay. In another nice touch, it is “nice guy” Leo who Vicky has to physically push away and warn off; Zachary, for all of his multiple failures, at least respects her choices here. And they are, clearly, Vicky’s choices.
I suspect that the reason Vicky is not attracted to Leo is because he is almost a classic case of Nice Guy Syndrome—I don’t think he’s entirely motivated by his hope that Vicky will like him, and indeed in many ways he is a nice guy, but Leo, not Zachary, is the one to force a kiss on her, and I suspect that Vicky sensed that coming.
I’m making this book seem all about the romance, and in some ways, it is, but in most ways, it isn’t: this is also a book filled with rich conversations between Vicky and others, discussions of life, death, love, expectations, joy, and dolphins. If I still find it difficult to believe that no one is tossing Zachary out of a plane or off a cliff, and if I had one or two small scientific issues with the dolphin scenes, I found myself drawn into these conversations. (And I can readily believe that everyone in the book is nicer than I am, and Vicky, no scientist, simply didn’t remember the dolphin conversations that accurately.) And by the end of the book, a stunning poetic sequence that is L’Engle at her very best, I, at least, found myself half believing that just possibly dolphins might be able to talk to us—and we might be able to talk back.
If you like dolphins, or even if you don’t, if you are grieving someone, or even if you aren’t, this might well be a book to try.
Mari Ness is dealing with some personal issues this week and may be slow to respond to comments.