I wasn’t as sold on this book as quickly as I was with A Wrinkle in Time, but it grew on me. The final quarter of the book was really strong! (And she didn’t rush the ending, or perhaps she did and I’m just used to it now.)
It’s a bit confusing, but I think I have it sorted out as The Arm of the Starfish is the second book written in the Kairos super-series, the first book of the second generation O’Keefe Family series, and the fourth book chronologically in plot line. Looking at the publication dates, it looks like L’Engle bounced back and forth between the two series (and another one) while she was writing in the ’60s and ’70s.
Apparently, the Time Quintet and the O’Keefe Family Books are collectively known as Kairos which Wikipedia explains as: “Kairos, the framework in which the stories of the Murry and O’Keefe families take place, was defined as “real-time, pure numbers with no measurement”, and often includes such elements as time travel, fantasy and religious content in a struggle between good and evil.” (Wikipedia)
I like this idea, because frankly the timelines of both of these series so far seem to be a bit disjointed and names are reused and it was a lot. As I said with the first series, I think it’s great that L’Engle didn’t dumb down her language or the scientific principles for her work. You have to pay attention AND you have to be willing to learn new things.
The story was slow at first and most of it comes from not knowing who to trust. Adam Eddington, the protagonist, is leading the story and he’s being pulled between two sides. Even though I kept thinking “we have to trust Dr. O’Keefe (Charles from the first series who married Meg Murray),” there was enough doubt planted by other characters that I didn’t know what to think. Add in that when I trusted who I was supposed to L’Engle made me question that again too!
L’Engle’s writing continued to make me happy, her descriptions are so magical and so simple. Take this sentence,
“They watched the plan as it gained altitude, flying, it seemed from where they stood, directly along the path of moonlight on water, flying further, higher, smaller, until it lost the reality of being an elderly, battered Hawker Hurricane piloted by a young man, and became a silver bird in the night flying to the moon.” (126)
It’s long, but you can immediately place yourself in that location and see what’s happening. And then her sense of place is phenomenal! The way she described Madrid and Lisbon in the following quotes not only reminded me of parts of Spain, but also London and Leeds in the UK and Paris and Italy, it was just Europe embodied. (And even Boston to some extent – minus the Middle Ages, obviously :-D)
“His room, a small one with an enormous bathroom, faced the back. If the view from the front of the hotel was definitely twentieth century, the view from the rear flung him into the Middle Ages. He looked down into a courtyard filled with strutting black geese. In the center was a stone fountain. The rooftops, in a confused jumble of levels, were warm red tile. The houses were oyster white, with crooked, unmatched windows.” (24)
“Dr. O’Keefe had given him a street map of Lisbon, and Adam had studied it. But Lisbon is not the simple chequer board that makes up most of Manhattan; Lisbon is unexpected hills, open squares, closed alleys, a city of twisting, turning, revealing, hiding, light, dark, a city of mystery and beauty and fascination.” (182)
She also has a way with her characters. I loved Charles Wallace’s and Meg’s quirkiness in the first set and I enjoyed the “realness” of Adam in this book. He’s a teenage male and as a former teenage male there are thoughts that they have that L’Engle captures hilariously on a few occasions.
“Poly had slipped off her sandals on the sea wall, and silently, teasing her bare toes against the incoming waves, her white cotton dress blown tight against her twenty-twenty-twenty body. Not quite twenty-twenty-twenty any more, Adam realized. It wasn’t going to be long before Poly would be bursting out of childhood as she was already beginning to do out of her dress.” (173)
I don’t even know why this one was so funny for me, but it was just the way she wrote it that I laughed to myself. Adam also has lines like “any red-blooded american man would like Kali,” (or something like that) that make him a true teen boy character and not just a caricature. It’s a lot like how she wrote about Sandy and Dennys in Many Waters.
Recommendation: I really ended up enjoying this one after I got into it. I think it’s definitely a good book for all ages. There’s a bit of darkness to it that wasn’t in the first series, but it’s not any worse than what’s on the news. I’m wondering if I will go into the Chronos books (The Austin Family), but that seems like an even bigger commitment with nine books. You never know right?
Opening Line: “A heavy summer fog enveloped Kennedy International.”
Closing Line: “He held her hand tightly. ‘I love you, too, Poly.'” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.
Additional Quotes from The Arm of the Starfish
“Oh, good, I’m so glad you aren’t one of those Americans who refuses to speak anybody else’s language. You speak awfully well.” (32)
“But you’re like a half-grown puppy. There’s something endearing about your clumsiness. I have to admit that I am doing it for you, too. But that’s of course.” (52)
“He remembered his math teacher back at school, a brilliant young Irishman, telling of his personal confusion when he first began to study higher mathematics and discovered that not all mathematical problems have one single and simple answer, that there is a choice of answers and a decision to be made by the mathematician even when dealing with something like an equation that ought to be definite and straightforward to allow of no more than one interpretation. ‘And that’s the way life is,’ the teacher had said. ‘Right or wrong, good and evil, aren’t always clear and simple for us; we have to interpret and decide; we have to commit ourselves, just as we do with this equation.'”(80)
“Antibiotics diluted and sold on the black market, and innocent children suffering and dying through this incomprehensible greed. This kind of thing doesn’t happen only in fiction. You don’t have to read the book or see the movie to come across it. This man, with a brilliant and utterly warped mind, grew fat on underworld black-market corruption.” (131)
“He would have liked to go to Kali in his lab clothes, already slightly stained, and a symbol of his work, and somehow also a symbol of where he stood. But this, he realized, would be a rather Don Quixote sort of gesture, and not very effective.” (143)
“You cannot suddenly stop loving where it has been the central emotion of your entire life.” (169)