Meet the Austins (by Madeleine L'Engle)

In my quest to re-read books by some of my favourite fiction writers, and discover some I’d missed, I decided to read another Madeleine L’Engle teenage book. It’s a busy period and I’m not reading much, so a shorter novel than usual was easy to finish in just a few evenings. I’ve been realising that although we’ve had several of this author’s books on our shelves since my sons discovered them close to twenty years ago, I had never (as far as I recall) read this one before.

‘Meet the Austins’ is a family story, introducing characters who, I assume, will feature in others in the series. Unlike the better known ‘Wrinkle in Time’ and its sequels, there’s nothing magical or mysterious in this book which features an ordinary American family. It was published in 1960, so I assume it was intended to be contemporary, and as such is an interesting snapshot into US life in that era.

Vicky is the narrator of this book. She’s twelve, and the second of four children. She and her older brother John have something of a love-hate relationship, although during the course of the book they realise that they are important to each other. Suzy is three years younger than Vicky, and Rob is about five. Their father is a doctor, their mother (as was typical of the era) stays at home and looks after the children and the household.

The story opens on a dramatic note as a phone call heralds a family bereavement. It shocks Vicky and makes her ask questions about life and God. Not long afterwards, a rather spoilt (and unhappy) girl called Maggy comes to join the family, temporarily at first, and the dynamics inevitably change.

There’s not much plot to this novel. Instead it’s a series of incidents showing family life, each chapter being complete in itself. The chapters are quite long; there are only five in around 150 pages. One of them is about a day that went wrong, with Vicky doing something she later regretted profoundly. One of the chapters is about a visit their uncle makes to their house, accompanied by a woman whom they all assume is a girlfriend. The final chapter describes a holiday to their grandfather’s home, by the sea, and a near tragedy.

There are some ongoing threads to the story, in particular that of Maggy’s gradual adaption to family life, and the decision as to what her future will hold. But since the book is an introduction to several people, it’s character-based. L’Engle had a gift for characterisation; perhaps some of her people are caricatured, but I very much liked the geeky John, the slightly rebellious Vicky, and the independent, determined Rob. Suzy was the least developed of the children; she’s rather over-shadowed by Maggy.

It’s not a great literary work but I’m glad I’ve read it at last. It would be suitable for any child from the age of about seven or eight who’s reading fluently, or as a read-aloud for the whole family. There’s a very low-key Christian theme - graces are said, Grandfather is a retired minister, and some theological questions are addressed without any preaching or even firm answers.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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