It surprises me that so many Anne of Green Gables devotees of my acquaintance have never read the Emily of New Moon series. Basically everyone raised in Canada has heard of puffed sleeves and raspberry cordial and Gilbert Blythe (both the movie and the book version), and there are even people who can go on about Aunt Jamesina and Una Meredith and the Cobb duckhouse, and yet these same people look at you with blank stares when you mention Teddy, Ilse or Dean Priest.
This is a shame, because Emily is one million times better than Anne—and this comes from someone who has read everything L.M. Montgomery has written, even the dreadful Pat of Silver Bush books. My love of the Emily novels finds me in good company (Alice Munro, Doris Lessing) and not-so-good company (Stephenie Meyer). I guess the story of an aspiring female writer growing up in a rural backwater has a certain universal appeal to, um, aspiring female writers growing up in rural backwaters.
At first glance, Emily’s premise seems familiar: orphaned girl goes to live with elderly relatives on a farm in Prince Edward Island; one relative is strict and acerbic; the other two are loving and indulgent. What distinguishes the three Emily books from the Anne series, however, is the flawed depth of the characters. Whereas Anne is a sunny spirit born under a bright star, tediously beloved by everyone, Emily is mordant and sensitive and way, way, WAY too intense. Like many artists, she isn’t particularly likeable, though she’s fiercely devoted to people and places she loves (but not in manner of weird, regressive Pat of Silver Bush). But I’ve always thought that while Anne would be really annoying to be around, I would love to go for drinks with Emily, to bask in her quick wit and occasional snarkiness.
Emily keeps a diary—L.M.M. devotes many chapters to Emily’s prodigiously long journal entries—and her sharp observations of human nature are some of the novels’ best moments. Emily’s need to “write herself out” is primordial; afterward, she is cleansed and whole. She is foremost a writer, and this shapes and defines her. And how refreshing it is to read a novel (published in the 1920s!) about a woman struggling to realize her career ambitions, where her goals are not placed in contradistinction to her quest for romance/marriage/kids. Throw in a handful of dark family histories, a cast of actual multidimensional secondary characters (as opposed to caricatures of quaint PEI villagers, though there’s lots of those too), and an insomnia-prone heroine with creepy psychic ability, and you’ve got—well, a story with some of the sweetness of Anne and the nostalgia of The Story Girl, but with a humour and intelligence that’s all its own.
From Emily Climbs:
“‘I was watching Ilse go past. Em’ly, does that girl wear any petticoats?’
“‘Her clothing is silk and purple,’ I murmured, quoting the Bible verse simply because there is something in it that charms me. One couldn’t imagine a finer or simpler description of a gorgeously dressed woman. I don’t think Aunt Ruth recognized the quotation: she thought I was just trying to be smart.
“‘If you mean that she wears a purple silk petticoat, Em’ly, say so in plain English. Silk petticoats, indeed. If I had anything to do with her I’d silk petticoat her.’
“‘Some day I am going to wear silk petticoats,’ I said.
“‘Oh, indeed, miss. And may I ask what you have got to get silk petticoats with?’
“‘I’ve got a future,’ I said, as proudly as the Murrayest of all Murrays could have said it.
“Aunt Ruth sniffed.
Rating: There are certain books that are so much a part of you and your growing-up that it’s silly to try to rate them. Just go forth and read.
Reading Age: I guess 10 and up?