Sunday, April 29, 2012

Book Review: Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle (1960)

I have read several Madeleine L’Engle novels as an adult, but I’ve never made my way through the entirety of any of her series. I’ve decided that the best way to remedy this situation is to read the interconnected Murray-O’Keefe and Austin novels in the order in which they were published. This means, when I do finally finish this task, I will have read Meet the Austins, A Wrinkle In Time, The Moon By Night, The Arm of the Starfish, The Young Unicorns, A Wind in the Door, Dragons in the Waters, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Ring of Endless Light, A House Like a Lotus, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time, and Troubling a Star. After reading Meet the Austins, I’m really looking forward to the rest.

While I associate L’Engle with science fiction, this first novel about the Austins is completely realistic. The lives of the four Austin kids - John, Vicky, Suzy, and Rob - are upset when their uncle and his co-pilot are killed in a crash, and the co-pilot’s daughter, Maggy, comes to live with the Austins. Maggy is a brat when she arrives, and it takes the family a while to warm up to her. It is only when they must face the possibility that Maggy might return to her surviving blood relatives that they realize how much a member of the family she really has become.

The chapters in this book are definitely interrelated, but each one represents one particular episode out of the Austins’ lives. Each episode highlights the strength of the sibling relationships, the devotion of the Austin parents, but also the family’s idiosyncrasies and flaws that keep them from becoming saccharine portraits of perfection. One of my favorite episodes in the entire book is when all the Austins dress up as a well-to-do family in order to scare off their uncle’s unsuitable girlfriend. Even Mr. and Mrs. Austin are in on the joke, which really makes them seem real and alive to the reader. I also think Vicky’s relationship to Rob, and the entire family’s reaction when Rob goes briefly missing, are very touching elements to the story, and very well-described.

Above all, though, the chapter which gives the most insight into the Austin family’s role in the world is one that was left out of the first published edition of the book. It’s called The Anti-Muffins, and it tells of the Austins’ club, which is based entirely on the idea that it’s undesirable to be conformist. Muffins come out of the pan all the same, but the Austins strive against that, hoping for a world where it’s okay to be a little bit strange. Also in the club is a Hispanic boy named Pablo whose family is poor. His presence is said to be the reason the chapter was originally cut from the book. But thank goodness it was put back in. I skipped it on my first read-through to see what the story was like without it. It was still very good - the vocabulary is very rich, the style very enjoyable, etc. - but something about that Anti-Muffins chapter makes the book feel whole to me. I truly wish I had read this book as a child just for that chapter.

This book has quickly become one of my favorites, and it has me completely hooked on the Austin characters. I can tell already I’m going to enjoy this little reading exercise, and especially enjoy seeing where L’Engle takes these characters in the books I've yet to read.


  1. +JMJ+

    My copy doesn't have the Anti-Muffins chapter. =( And for the longest time, I thought that The Anti-Muffins was a separate Austen novella. Would you know if all new editions include it, Katie?

    I like the Austin family, too, but simply never warmed to Vicky. (Not that there's a competition or anything, but I'm "Team Meg"! =P) And my favourite Austin family novel is the one Vicky doesn't narrate. LOL! I think I would have preferred John as the narrator.

    Just a few hours ago, I was reading a friend's review of the Frank Capra movie You Can't Take It With You, which also includes a scene in which a rich, snooty visitor is confronted with a poorer, more eccentric family. Your highlighting this episode in Meet the Austins reminds me that I kind of like such little clashes of culture--but only because I always identify with the eccentrics. =P I was always kind of impressed that Dr. and Mrs. Austin were so willing to play dress up and got so into their roles, but at the same time, kind of skeptical. I don't think I ever bought it, no matter how much fun I also found it.

  2. This series was a favorite reread when I was eleven and twelve, and even into my early teens.

    1. I am disappointed in my younger self for refusing to read them. I know I would have loved the Austins if I'd given them a chance.