Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review: Marilla of Green Gables

Like most Canadian girls, I love Anne of Green Gables. I've read the books (multiple times), watched the Megan Follows movies (multiple times), and have been watching Anne with an E, the newest TV adaptation, as well. So when I heard Sarah McCoy had written a novel about Marilla, I was excited. Cautious but excited. I try to go into adaptations and the like with an open mind but of course I'm always a little worried about what a new person (whether it be an author, actor, director) will do to the original work. Marilla of Green Gables isn't perfect - because nothing can be perfect - but it was enjoyable and, I think, a worthy addition to the world of Anne.

Here's the (extremely long) synopsis (which I didn't even bother reading before requesting this book because I knew I'd want to read it no matter what):
A bold, heartfelt tale of life at Green Gables . . . before Anne: A marvelously entertaining and moving historical novel, set in rural Prince Edward Island in the nineteenth century, that imagines the young life of spinster Marilla Cuthbert, and the choices that will open her life to the possibility of heartbreak—and unimaginable greatness
Plucky and ambitious, Marilla Cuthbert is thirteen years old when her world is turned upside down. Her beloved mother has dies in childbirth, and Marilla suddenly must bear the responsibilities of a farm wife: cooking, sewing, keeping house, and overseeing the day-to-day life of Green Gables with her brother, Matthew and father, Hugh.
In Avonlea—a small, tight-knit farming town on a remote island—life holds few options for farm girls. Her one connection to the wider world is Aunt Elizabeth “Izzy” Johnson, her mother’s sister, who managed to escape from Avonlea to the bustling city of St. Catharines. An opinionated spinster, Aunt Izzy’s talent as a seamstress has allowed her to build a thriving business and make her own way in the world.
Emboldened by her aunt, Marilla dares to venture beyond the safety of Green Gables and discovers new friends and new opportunities. Joining the Ladies Aid Society, she raises funds for an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity in nearby Nova Scotia that secretly serves as a way station for runaway slaves from America. Her budding romance with John Blythe, the charming son of a neighbor, offers her a possibility of future happiness—Marilla is in no rush to trade one farm life for another. She soon finds herself caught up in the dangerous work of politics, and abolition—jeopardizing all she cherishes, including her bond with her dearest John Blythe. Now Marilla must face a reckoning between her dreams of making a difference in the wider world and the small-town reality of life at Green Gables.
McCoy does a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Green Gables and Avonlea. Her Marilla was quite similar to Montgomery's Anne (not too surprising since the novel starts with Marilla at about the same age as Anne was when she first came to Green Gables) which, for the most part, was lovely and seemed true to the Marilla we all know and love. I did find myself sometimes wondering if she really would have been that imaginative or outspoken. It was hard to reconcile younger Marilla with older Marilla. She became a bit more recognizable after a heartbreaking event (which I did see coming but that doesn't make it any less devastating) because she loses her innocence. As she gets older, though, she finishes her schooling and stays up to date with politics - even voicing her opinion at a town hall. That didn't really feel familiar but it was enjoyable to read nonetheless.

Speaking of the politics, those parts of the story are really what made me recognize that this wasn't a Green Gables story written by Montgomery. Further, that this wasn't a book written during the 1800s. It's a historical novel written in the present day and reads as such. I don't recall Montgomery ever really noting what was happening in Canada or the world as Anne was growing up. There may have been passing mention of a Prime Minister or something of that nature, but Marilla was very clearly living and engaging in her time. This wasn't a bad thing...it's just a thing that makes it a McCoy novel instead of anything else. Does that make sense? Related to the history - I was amused when it was revealed that Izzy, Marilla's aunt, lived in St. Catharines because that's where I live. It wasn't until much later that you realize the importance of this.

I did really like that McCoy peppered the story with familiar names and faces. Meeting a young Rachel Lynde (née White) was way more fun than I thought it would be. It's hard to relate to Rachel in Anne of Green Gables but I think I like her even more now. In any other prequel, I think it would have been odd to have the same families show up but this is Avonlea after all. Most people never leave so of course the same names (Andrews, Sloan, Barry, just to name a few) would carry on from Marilla's youth to Anne's.

McCoy notes in her Author's Note that the book all started when she couldn't stop thinking about a line from Anne of Green Gables, Chapter 37 (emphasis is McCoy's):
"What a nice-looking fellow he is," said Marilla absently. "I saw him in church last Sunday and he seemed so tall and manly. He looks a lot like his father did at the same age. John Blythe was a nice boy. We used to be real good friends, he and I. People called him my beau."
Anne looked up with swift interest.
"Oh, Marilla - and what happened?"
I'm sure I thought the same as Anne and McCoy throughout the years but the difference between me and McCoy is she had to do something about it. Marilla of Green Gables is her answer to Anne's question. What did happen between Marilla and John Blythe? I think this is where McCoy shone. She tells the story of young love so wonderfully that my heart was full and aching through the entire book because I, of course, knew how things turned out for Marilla and John.

Finally, I have to share a quote from page 159 that Anne fans will love because it really shows the connection between Marilla and Anne plus how well McCoy knows and understands Montgomery's work:
Never mind today, she thought. There was no undoing the mistakes in it. But tomorrow was new with time a-plenty to make things right.
Love love love.

I could probably discuss and pick apart this novel until the Cuthberts' cows came home to Green Gables but I won't. I'll simply say this: Anne of Green Gables fans should be thrilled with Sarah McCoy's Marilla of Green Gables. It captures the heart of Marilla and Green Gables and should find it's way to every Anne lover's bookshelf.

*An ARC of this novel was provided by the publisher, HarperCollins Canada, in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

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