Meet the Austins
is a young adult fiction novel by American author Madeleine L’Engle. First published in 1960, it draws loosely from L’Engle’s own life, following the protagonist Vicky Austin through a multitude of short vignettes as she comes of age in a tumultuous family. L’Engle bases Vicky’s anxieties and other social struggles on those of her own adolescence, depicting a series of formative struggles which progressively renew her relationship to, and awareness of, selfhood. The novel is unique in being one of L’Engle’s few works outside the genre of fantasy, though many of her other works are sometimes considered to transcend demarcations of genre.Meet the Austins
begins by introducing Vicky and her family. Mr. Austin is a gynecologist who is terribly absorbed in his career; Mrs. Austin is a stay-at-home mom, who spends much of her time taking care of Rob, Vicky’s four-year-old brother. John, Vicky’s oldest brother, is an intimidating intellectual and the source of some of Vicky’s insecurities. Suzy, Vicky’s younger sister, is ordinary but beautiful, and Vicky often compares herself negatively to her. The family also owns two charismatic dogs and a number of cats. Despite their differences and occasional spars between siblings, the Austin family is close and generally happy.
One day, the order of things is thrown out of balance when the Austin family’s “uncle,” an old friend of Mr. and Mrs. Austin, is killed in a plane crash along with his wife. The deaths orphan a daughter, Maggy, who is quickly taken up by the Austins. The good deed is quickly complicated when Maggy turns out to be vain, spoiled, and emotionally distant. Maggy goads Suzy on when she breaks the rules, calling into question the Austins’ role in performing as parent figures. Lacking a will from her parents other than a reference to a possible guardian who lacks the resources to care for her, Maggy’s fate is unclear, and the Austins resolve to hold on to her as long as they must. Different vignettes cover the casual accidents and tragedies of youth—for example, a bike accident, as well as its moments of beauty; and an Austin family vacation—which elicit nostalgia and appreciation only after they are gone.
A unifying theme of Meet the Austins
’ glimpses of the troubled family is their resilience and self-acceptance. Despite Vicky’s insecurities, she is never left behind by any of her family; in contrast, they work to connect to her even despite her self-conscious moments of resistance. Through these same methods, they also come to terms with Maggy, learning that her seemingly antisocial traits are merely defensive reactions to a perceived hostility in the world.
At the end of the novel, the family remains in Thornhill, Connecticut at the base of the mountain that frames their slice of life. Pivoting around this singular site of memory, Meet the Austins
hints at the virtually limitless combinations of memory and experience that interplay in the unconscious of the adolescent life, lending length and depth to Vicky’s narrative.