Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rilla of Ingleside and The Blue Castle

A few posts back, I had reason to mention Anne of Green Gables, and I thought perhaps it was time to go back and reevaluate some of Lucy Maud Montgomery's books. Oh boy, how wrong I was.

Not to be completely negative: some of her novels (particularly the first three or four Anne books) are fun. There are good moments. And even her worst books are interesting, if you happen to find interest in a) realistic accounts of life in turn-of-the-century Canada or b) the slow transition from Victorian novels to Modernist fiction, both of which are more or less fascinating for me. (The former: less, the latter: more.)

Rilla of Ingleside is the final book in the Anne series*; the eponymous Rilla is Anne's youngest daughter, 14 or so when the book begins. This book suffers from many of the same weaknesses found in the earlier books, and adds a few of its own to the catalogue. All the main characters still seem to think that an appreciation for gloppy, sentimental poetry is the highest form of spirituality; the beauty of nature is described and dwelt upon at agonizing length; and the male characters, like all of Montgomery's men, are so blank and featureless that one wonders if she ever actually met a human male.** This novel also, as is so common with the ends of series, reduces its long-recurring characters to caricatures. It's clear that Montgomery had finally run out of new insights to offer into Anne's deeply spiritual flower worship, thank the dear sweet baby Jesus. (Don't worry, though! Her children take over where she left off!)

Since World War I breaks out a few pages into Rilla, this book is unique in the Anne series, incorporating as it does a bit of the world outside of a small and peaceful part of Canada. If you take the other novels at face value, the most important world events between about 1885 and 1914 were an unsuccessful cake and a Methodist going to a Presbyterian church; Rilla is staged entirely in the same milieu, but the war is the focus. The treatment of the war, and its effects on those left at home, is the book's strongest point. Montgomery does a good job with the elderly, loving servant who bakes goodies (out of strictly rationed foodstuffs) to mail to the boys at the front; it's truly touching, the more so because it's one of the few places in any Montgomery book where the touching doesn't feel forced.***

On the other hand, the deepening pool of melodrama into which Montgomery can't help wading eventually rises up to drown characters and readers alike, and any genuine moments of emotion get lost in the process, sucked down into a whirlpool of bathos and overextended metaphors.

This novel also suffers from what my mom (Hi, Mom!!) calls "uh-oh, Teen Romance alert!" I realize that people used to get married earlier in life. But this particular uh-oh Teen Romance stretches my credibility to the breaking point and beyond. The hero and heroine spend one hour sitting on a beach together, during which time he basically talks at her while she listens worshipfully; when he comes back from the war a few years later, it's still TRUE LURRRV! Sorry, but no. That's a divorce (or, in 1920s Canada, a long and bitter life together) waiting to happen. On the other hand, they both like flowers and poetry and stuff, and no doubt this gooey spirituality of his, combined with her cheerful, earnest, womanly desire to bake cakes for him and clean his boots, will entirely erase his years in the trenches in France watching his friends drown in their own blood in a pit of mud and excrement while starving to death. Surely.

On to The Blue Castle, a novel Montgomery allegedly wrote for adults. I think I may have mentioned coincidences in fiction, and how I try not to judge too harshly, since they're usually less bizarre than in real life. Okay, not in this book. I take it all back. If you read the first two chapters of this novel, and then tried to construct the most absurd, unlikely, impossibly stupid set of coincidences you could possibly derive from any and all people and objects mentioned in those chapters, you would still not predict the end of this book. It achieves a twist ending simply by being more predictable than any book in history. It's actually awe-inspiring.

On the plus side, this novel's characters are kind of appealing; the heroine finds out, at the beginning of the story, that she has a year or less to live, and her resulting "what the hell? you only live once" transformation from downtrodden spinster to sarcastic shocker-of-aunts is very funny.

Then, to my great regret, this character moves to a house in the woods, and things get ugly. For L.M. Montgomery, no tree is just a tree. It is a noble and lofty pine -- standing untouched amidst primeval glory, limned in traceries of frosty white shed from the tears of drooling cherubs, its branches against the shining face of the moon's orb as delicate as the embroidery on Persephone's wedding gown -- which Montgomery then uses to beat the crap out of your will to live. After winter comes spring; bushels of mayflowers are violently shoved up the reader's (choose a metaphorical body part) at every turn, in chapter after chapter of sugary nature-worshipping filth. By the end of the novel, I was twitching with the desire to pour cement over every virgin forest in North America, just so no one would ever, ever write something like this again.

Rilla of Ingleside: Two stars overall and within the genre of YA fiction.

The Blue Castle: One and a half stars overall, half a star within the genre of Modern-era fiction.

* I'm going to assume not everyone has read these: Anne, an orphan in late 19th century Canada, is accidentally adopted by a couple of boring middle-aged people who meant to get a boy to help around the farm. Her big, green eyes, winsome charm, and delightful hijinks win them over anyway. She goes to school. She has equally sappy friends. Her inferiority complex about having red hair eventually fades. She goes to a teachers' college, becomes a teacher, goes to a university and gets a B.A., gets married, and has a whole bunch of kids. Throughout, she wistfully declaims on the loveliness of sparkly dewy moonshine on fairy wings, or whatever the fuck else, and everyone seems to interpret this as evidence of intelligence, God help us. And that is all the context you need.

** The book was written ten years after she married, as a matter of fact, so I guess that explanation is out.

*** Suggestiveness acknowledged and intended.

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