I read A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle around twice a year…particularly when I’m in need of a little soul soothing. It’s a timeless book about family and loss, and when there was a death in my personal circle recently, it was this book I turned to for comfort, for the tools to make sense of it all. I finished it this morning on the subway, and had to fight not to burst into tears.
The older I get, the more I realize Ring is not the smoothest book in the world, that there are inconsistencies in the writing. But it’s so dear to me that I don’t care. L’Engle weaves a simple, heartfelt tale of how 15-year-old Vicky Austin learns to cope with death and darkness by choosing life and light, and whenever my own life is feeling kinda shadowy, it’s exactly the message I need.
L’Engle has a way of balancing science and religion, of allowing for mysticism of both kinds, and she doesn’t indoctrinate the reader. Instead, it’s like being wrapped in a blanket, feeling safe to explore it all and discuss it, and know that either way, there’s something out there bigger than just you.
The Austins are an intellectual family — one that listens to classical music and reads Shakespeare and Henry Fielding. There are no real pop culture markers to date this book. So, when you ignore the references to record players and the lack of cell phones, there’s very much a sense that this book could take place now. It was published in 1980, when I was two. I probably read it the first time when I was 13 and I’ve never felt like I couldn’t relate to it.
I’m seriously not religious, but the Austins, who sing Grace and believe in God and do “zuggy” things like go to church (as Zachary Gray would say), still feel like kin to me. At one point in the novel, Vicky’s sister Suzy bitterly asks why they bother praying if they know it’s not going to accomplish anything. Their mother gently tells her, “Because it’s an act of love.” I can’t argue with that logic: Sometimes, an act of love is all you need. Barring that, I just engage in the act of reading this book, and hold it close.