Review: Children's Fiction · Review: Historical Fiction · Review: Teen Fiction

Book Review: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables is a Canadian children’s book published in 1908. It remains to this day a staple of childhood in parts of Canada and the US. It revolves around Anne Shirley, an 11-year-old orphan who is adopted by an elderly pair of siblings living in the picturesque Green Gables in Avonlea, a fictional community on Prince Edward Island. The book follows her through age 16.

Last month, a new serialized version of Anne of Green Gables came out on CBC in Canada, and on Netflix for the rest of us. To commemorate this, I decided to have a mini Anne of Green Gables palooza. There are over 15 movies, 6 separate TV series, 9 books in the original series and a rewritten modern adaptation, so I can say with certainty that I won’t be addressing all of these works. It will, however, be extremely difficult to create a sequential series of reviews addressing each version as if it were entirely self-contained: after 110 years and dozens of books, shows and movies, these many versions have become irreversibly entangled in one another in the public consciousness.

This review will contain spoilers, though I maintain that this is not a suspenseful book, and if you enjoy Anne, it will make no difference whether you know where the story is going or not.

The original book, Anne of Green Gables, is simple and ageless. It is episodic in nature, simply following Anne in her day-to-day life. The story is character-driven, starting with Anne’s desire for love in friendship and family. Anne, with her penchant for ceaseless chatter and wild imagininings, is charming and eloquent. Though she acknowledges that some prefer her to stop talking, she is never self-loathing with regards to her personality. She does, however, express self-loathing with regards to her appearance, making it clearly known to the reader and the rest of the cast that she would prefer beauty, which she feels she lacks, over brains, which all acknowledge that she has.

Anne’s obsession with her looks is never more clear than in her five-year-long feud with Gilbert Blythe, which is begun because he called her “carrots” on Anne’s first day of school, unknowingly taunting Anne for the red hair of which she is so very self-conscious. Anne subsequently cannot find it in herself to forgive Gilbert for years afterwards. They are academic rivals the entire time, however, and as time goes by, it is abundantly clear that Anne has come to care very much what Gilbert thinks of her, even before she realizes that she has forgiven his transgression.

If there is an overarching plot, then that plot is of Anne and Gilbert’s journey to becoming friends. Through a combination of pride, stubbornness and missed timings, it takes five years and two thirds of a book for them to reach this point. This is not to say that they spend a lot of time pining. This is the pair that end up happily married in future books. Yet while there are hints that Gilbert might harbor budding romantic feelings for Anne, Anne herself feels no overt attraction to Gilbert. By nature, this is not that kind of book.

In this book, Anne’s love interest is, for all intents and purposes, her bosom friend Diana Barry. Diana and Anne become fast friends and love each other dearly, nearly to the exclusion of all others for most of their school days. Theirs is the relationship with ups and downs. The greatest devastation that comes to Anne is when Diana’s mother forbids them from being friends for a time, until Anne saves Diana’s little sister Minnie May in a time of crisis. Their mutual declarations of love are as heartfelt as any romance, and their relationship as binding. This tight-knit dynamic only dissolves when their life paths diverge, Anne heading to Queens Academy without Diana.

This 350-page book spans Anne’s life from age 11 through 16. The first hundred and fifty pages or so, detailing Anne’s introduction to Avonlea, the Cuthbert family, her bosom friend Diana Barry, and school and Gilbert Blythe. After that, the story begins to accelerate–or rather, to jump months at a time as Anne’s life settles down and the narrative only stops on noteworthy events, which are fewer and further between.

As a child, for me, the book felt over when Anne leaves Green Gables. By the time that Anne goes to Queens Academy for her teaching license, all the things that had drawn me in were gone: Anne’s flights of fancy have toned down, Diana is gone, even Anne’s dislike for Gilbert is gone, and she thrives on a sort-of-friendly rivalry although they both have too much pride to make another attempt at friendship. Anne’s friendships with the other girls after Diana never had the same intensity: Anne’s focus is now on her academics. It felt more like an extended epilogue to me, which perhaps ought to have instead been a part of the sequel, Anne of Avonlea. That said, I did enjoy the moment at the very end when Anne and Gilbert at last reconcile and become friends.

Though Anne is very eloquent and not at all refrained in expressing her emotions, there are still many ways to interpret her. In stark contrast to many subsequent adaptations, this book never once depicts what Anne truly went through before being taken in by the Cuthberts. She occasionally reflects on events and relates happenings, but the book begins with Matthew picking her up at the station and contains no flashbacks. As a child of a happy family, I brought no baggage to the table when reading about Anne, and so I read her as a happy child with a quirky personality and some sadness in her past. However, reading it again as an adult with a background in cognitive science, I do find myself noticing that there is plenty of room for interpretation. The book is largely dialogue, and exposition tends to be limited to setting scenes and time skips. There is certainly room for interpretation.

I bring this up because it is relevant to the next installment in my Anne of Green Gables palooza: the newly released show, Anne with an E.

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