There’s no doubt about it: fans of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne series will throng to read Sarah McCoy’s prequel. McCoy was inspired by the brief moment in Anne of Green Gables when Marilla tells Anne that John Blythe used to be her beau. Just like Anne, she wanted to know the story behind that offhand remark.
So although Marilla of Green Gables begins in 1876 with a short prologue in which Matthew and Marilla decide to ‘get a boy’ to help around the place, most of it is set in 1837–8, with Marilla taking a break from her schooling to assist her parents, Hugh and Clara (it’s no coincidence that these are the names of L.M. Montgomery’s parents), in the months before her new sibling is to arrive. Brother Matthew is 21 and testing out adulthood, but Marilla is just 13 and impressionable. John Blythe offers to bring her the school readings she’s missed out on, and later invites her to the Avonlea May Picnic. It’s clear she’s smitten.
Aunt Izzy, a dressmaker from St. Catharines, arrives in time to cheer her twin sister through the impending birth and ends up being Marilla’s new role model. She’s fanciful, exuberant and spontaneous and believes “A young girl needs as much time to dream as possible,” surely making her a deliberate precursor of Anne Shirley. Indeed, much of the fun of reading this book is in spotting the seeds of the Anne books: Clara and Izzy making their famous redcurrant wine and laughing about the time Clara lost a thumbnail in the mix; meeting Rachel White (Lynde) at a sewing circle; a visit to the orphanage in Hopetown; raspberry cordial at a picnic; the Ladies’ Aid Society; and looking to a mistake-free tomorrow.
Before long, though, personal and political upheaval take their toll at Green Gables and drive a wedge between Marilla and John. I found Part Two significantly less engaging, what with all the talk of Reformers versus Loyalists (though I did enjoy glimpses of escaped slaves’ experiences in Canada). I tend not to read anything approaching a romance novel, so I groaned to find that there’s not one but two Mr. Darcy-esque wet-shirt scenes featuring John.
This is not meant to be a substitute for reading Montgomery’s own work; if anything it’s prompted me to reread the original series as soon as I can. While I wouldn’t call Marilla a must-read for fans, then, if you enjoy women’s historical fiction set in the nineteenth century, you may want to pick up this companion volume anyway.
Marilla of Green Gables was published by William Morrow on October 23rd. My thanks to publicist Beth Parker for the proof copy for review. Sarah McCoy is the author of four previous works of fiction, including The Mapmaker’s Children and The Baker’s Daughter.
Since May I’ve been posting my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. This is when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such serendipitous incidents. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- Two historical novels set (partially) among the slaves of Martinique and featuring snippets of Creole (Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money)
- A book about epilepsy and a conductor’s memoir, followed by a novel with a conductor character and another who has seizures (Suzanne O’Sullivan’s Brainstorm and Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? to Caoilinn Hughes’s Orchid & the Wasp)
- Two characters mistake pregnancy for cholera (in Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil)
- Two characters are reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight and Julie Buntin’s Marlena) … I’ve since tried again with Le Guin’s book myself, but it’s so dry I can only bear to skim it.
- Two memoirs by Iranian-American novelists with mental health and drug use issues (Porochista Khakpour’s Sick and Afarin Majidi’s Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror)
- References to the blasé response to Martin Luther King’s assassination in North Carolina (in Paulette Bates Alden’s Crossing the Moon and David Sedaris’s Calypso)
- The Police lyrics (in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard [a whole essay called “Sting”])
- Salmon croquettes mentioned in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- I’m reading Beryl Markham’s West with the Night … and then Glynnis MacNicol picks that very book up to read on a plane in No One Tells You This
- Starting two books with the word “Ladder” in the title, one right after the other: Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan and Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler (followed just a couple of weeks later by A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne!)
- Two books set in Dunedin, New Zealand, one right after the other – I planned it that way, BUT both have a character called Myrtle (To the Is-Land by Janet Frame and Dunedin by Shena Mackay). Then I encountered Harold Gillies, the father of plastic surgery, in Jim McCaul’s Face to Face, and guess what? He was from Dunedin!
- Then I was skimming Louisa Young’s You Left Early and she mentioned that her grandmother was a sculptor who worked with Gillies on prostheses, which was the inspiration for her WWI novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.
- Two novels featuring drug addicts (Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin and Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn)
- The same Wallace Stevens lines that appear as an epigraph to Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered are mentioned in Elaine Pagels’s Why Religion? – “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.”
- “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is mentioned in Little by Edward Carey and Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy
- Reading Nine Pints, Rose George’s book about blood, at the same time as Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, which is partially about vampires; in this it takes 90 days for a human to become fully vampirized – the same time it takes to be cured of an addiction according to the memoir Ninety Days by Bill Clegg.