It was drizzling.
The afternoon skies, instead of being golden or pink, were gray.
I held my closed umbrella; I did not open it. I wasn’t afraid of rain that time.
I was at Ayala Triangle, Makati, waiting for my old friend in college because we were going to jog together that Friday night. There were large prints of classical art paintings by Spanish artists displayed during that time in the park. This was the Museo del Prado Exhibit.
It was such an uncommon view – an outdoor museum in the middle of an open area with trees, a few passersby, faint yellow lights, and light rain. Nonetheless, it stirred within me a sense of peace.
But the sense of peace was taken over by delight when I spotted The Book Stop Project – a pop-up library here in the Philippines where architecture and love for books meet. It had a different design now: the shelves were underneath a flight of wooden steps where people could sit and read and talk with fellow book-lovers.
In retrospect, it reminds me of Harry Potter’s cupboard underneath the staircase – only the space of the shelves was bigger and perhaps more well lit.
This was my second encounter with The Book Stop Project; the first was with my friend Denise when we participated in a Blind Date with a Book.
After gazing at the paintings and reading their descriptions along with the Spanish translations (because I’m not giving up on my plans of learning Spanish!), I walked over to the pop-up library and began browsing familiar titles.
Many were paperbacks, and most books were unfamiliar to me until I found a name I’ve known for a long time written on the spine of a thin paperback: Madeleine L’Engle.
I took it from the shelf and saw that it was Meet the Austins.
Lucky stars, I found one of her books from this series! I first knew about the Austin Family Chronicles through Glimpses of Grace which is a compilation of excerpts from Madeleine L’Engle’s works meant to be read daily for one whole year as a sort of reflection on themes like faith, art, creativity, creation, words, writing, and God.
It was one of those meetings that felt like it was destined to happen. I’ve always wanted to read the books, and then, unexpectedly comes the first book too! To whoever donated Meet the Austins to The Book Stop PH, thank you.
But because I didn’t have a book with me to donate so I could get Meet the Austins, I put it back to the shelf. I was going to go home to the province the next day, so I decided to find an old book of mine that I could donate and put it there at the pop-up library for others to find.
After that, my friend arrived, and we proceeded to catch up with each other after 3-4 years while jogging in light rain and gray weather. It was a good night of finding a new friend in the Austins and talking with an old friend.
Meet the Austins
The morning after, I walked back again to Ayala Triangle and checked if the book was still there. I was thankful to God that it was still there, so I donated an old book and got myself Meet the Austins.
I started reading it aboard the bus on my way home. It’s usually a four-hour-long trip from Manila to our province, so I had some time to read into the story. But before reading, I have this habit of reading a few reviews or if there weren’t any, I’d go to the foreword, note from the author, and other writings before the main story. I check too for little unique details like marks of the previous owner or if it was a library book and if there was a card inside. Could it hide a message on one of its pages?
Written in marker were the initials YSLA. I hope that YSLA is okay and has enjoyed this story a lot too.
When I turned the cover too, I found a special signature. At first, I thought it was Madeleine L’Engle’s actual signature, but it was just printed. Still, it was a nice thing to see her signature there, as if it was an autograph of the author herself.
She signed it after her note about how she was told that the Austin family was very much like her family. And she too was like Vicky Austin, the main character, whom I was able to relate to as well.
April 1995. I was barely two feet tall perhaps at that time, and here I am now much older and taller, being able to read the first book of the Austin Family Chronicles.
While reading this book, I’ve felt close with this family of four – or should I say five? Originally, the Austins are Dr. Wallace (the father), Victoria (the mother), John (the bespectacled scientist), Vicky (our main character), Suzy (the ambitious and smart third child), and Rob (charming and prayerful). They also have dogs: Mr. Rochester and Collete. Other characters include their beautiful aunt, Aunt Elena and their Uncle Douglas, who is Dr. Wallace’s brother.
Of course, when you’re living most of the time with family, you all have these routines already, knowing each other’s characteristics, and laughing over memories with each other over time. Everyone and everything is familiar until an orphan named Maggy Hamilton was introduced to the Austin family.
She wasn’t liked much at all by the Austin children except maybe for Suzy and Rob, because she carried on to their home her own stubbornness and misery. However, one cannot help to not try to understand her story.
A little change happens in the Austin household.
Vicky, not really in the mood to empathize with a difficult child like Maggy, won’t know so soon if it is a good or bad change and how it will affect her and the family.
This is where the story grows from.
I loved Meet the Austins. Reading it since May up to this June made me get to know the family more and wonder myself how my family would be like too in words. The author captured and portrayed family life – which is kind of like our everyday life, for some of us – in an interesting, poignant, charming, and intimate way. She makes you love her characters too and care about them.
Moreover, I echo her sentiments that the Austin family is representative of many families who dwell in love for one another, even if sometimes, siblings may fight or a new seemingly difficult person comes along unexpectedly.
Madeleine L’Engle, with her injecting some of her own family’s experiences and characteristics into the narrative, definitely made me feel more close to her. Ever since I read more of her works like Glimpses of Grace and A Circle of Quiet besides A Wrinkle in Time, she has been like a sweet and wise grandmother, friend, and teacher to me through her reflections and story.
The first book revolved around the new addition of Maggy to the family, the initial glimpse of what the family is like, the members’ relationships to one another, how their daily domestic life happens throughout the seasons, visits to endearing relatives, and how the Austins get through problems in faith, laughter, singing, and joy and how they celebrate togetherness.
“But we can’t,” Mother said. “We can’t stop on the road of Time. We have to keep on going. And growing up is all part of it, the exciting and wonderful business of being alive. […] But being alive is a gift, the most wonderful and exciting gift in the world.”
These are the kinds of books that I enjoy reading, because I find friends and family in them. For the moments I read it in our home, in a salon, on the bus, or sitting before the table, I felt like I was transported to their big old white house, getting a share of dinner baked from the oven, and then listening to the songs Victoria Austin sang with her children and played on their phonograph. Meet the Austins gave me a warm feeling inside.
I also appreciate how L’Engle gives a voice to Vicky, and we see her as this young and imperfect but changing girl who still has so much to learn about the world, her own family too, and the circumstances they live in. Seeing how Vicky acted and thought, I could relate to her as well, when I think about my younger self. I also appreciate her relationship with John, the eldest. Although they got on each other’s nerves at times, they still love each other. I guess that was how I felt because as an only child, I didn’t have siblings to fight (playfully!) with and grow up with. I’ve always wanted an older brother and a younger sibling.
Writing the book and reading its flow seemed so natural, sure, and real – probably because the author derived inspiration from her own family and personal experiences. Truly, fiction has a grain of truth in it. Don’t we all put some of ourselves in and our lives into the stories we weave?
L’Engle writes specifically, so you would get an idea from where the characters are coming from. Likewise, she gets to the main points in rich and deep dialogue and in Vicky saying how a certain event took place or felt for her.
“I’d never seen such a startlingly brilliant night, the fields and mountains washed in a flood of light. The shadows of trees and sunflowers were sharply black and stretched long and thin across the lawn. It was so beautiful that for a moment the beauty was all that mattered; it wasn’t important that there were things we would never understand.”
I loved some of the simple moments that happened in the in-betweens too, besides the more significant ones (story-wise) like the paragraphs where L’Engle described a quiet night where Victoria Austin wakes her children up in the middle of the night to see fairyland, and fairyland was described with the clear black sky with the light of the moon illuminating everything, and the snow and ice reflected it, making the light glint. And the whole family silently watched and took in the scene just outside their window. That passage for me just goes to show that emotion can be stirred powerfully too in the small ordinary moments like that.
“We just stood there and looked and looked. And suddenly I was so happy I felt as though my happiness were flying all abut me, like sparkles of moonlight off the ice. And I wanted to hug everybody, and tell how much I loved everybody and how happy I was, but it seemed as though I were under a spell, as though I couldn’t move or speak, and I just stood there, with joys streaming out of me, until Mother and Daddy sent us up to bed.”
And then here’s my favorite part with L’Engle’s novels: she inputs her faith right there too. Sometimes, I think that when it’s difficult for us to describe something straightforwardly as if it’s a known fact (like our faith or beliefs or doubts), we use stories. In them, we are able to put a different face and mouth and mind to the things we inherently feel or think about, in the lens of fiction.
Suzy said, “I’d like to know everything in the world.”
“It’s more than everything in the world, though, Suzy,” Grandfather said. “It’s become much bigger than that. The search for knowledge and truth can be the most exciting thing there is as long as it takes you toward God instead of away from Him.”
When I finished reading the book earlier, I couldn’t help but want to read the rest of the chronicles or even re-reading the first all over!
It was such a serendipitous moment finding this at The Book Stop PH, and serendipity mostly happens on a blue moon, doesn’t it? I hope that by a stroke of luck or destiny or a tesseract, I get to find the next books in the series. Or just buy, I guess. Haha!
I truly loved being part of the Austin family, learning from them, laughing and crying with them, and even singing with them. Yes, I love this family, I love each one of them, and they’re very easy to like and relate to. Families are favorite subjects of mine for a story to revolve around, because we get to see the humanity and flaws of one another yet we still deeply care about each other. Even through times of pain in problems or bliss in vacations, there is hope for forgiveness, joy, and closeness.
Reading this book felt like just having a conversation with a deep and loving family. I loved their conversations too with one another; one can pick up a lot from them.
I look forward to meeting the Austins again sometime, if not in the next books soon, then maybe in a quick re-read just to feel close again and learn from this family.