Friday, June 28, 2013

A Tangled Web

L.M Montgomery is well known for her Anne of Green Gables books, and perhaps second-best known for her Emily series. I loved the Anne books, though the Emily ones weren't my favorite. But altogether I find her individual works the most engaging and enjoyable. Jane of Lantern Hill I reviewed in September, and that is her best work, fit for all ages. But today's review is one that I would recommend for probably 16 and up, due to the adult themes and moral difficulties that a couple of plots present.

I read A Tangled Web in two days flat, to the accompaniment of lapping waves in the little vacation cottage we stay at every year. It was a scream (though in some places, the laughter elicited was rather unholy in nature) and like all Montgomery novels, makes the reader laugh and cry at the same time. I wouldn't have missed it for the world, though now that I look through it a second time, I would be rather more cautious recommending it than I remembered. If you've never read Montgomery, you probably shouldn't start with this book; but if you've had a long-standing acquaintance with her and are willing to sift a bit, you'll find this an enjoyable read about the biggest family feud ever to split Prince Edward Island.

The Story
No gloom was cast over  the communities of Indian Spring, Three Hills, Rose River or Bay Silver when it became known that Mrs.  Theodore Dark--Aunt Becky as she was generally called, less from affection than habit--had died at the age of eighty-five. Everybody concerned felt that it was high time the old lady did die. She had lived a long life, respectably if not brilliantly, had experienced almost everything a decent female could experience, had outlived husband and children and anybody who had ever really cared anything for her. There was therefore neither sense, reason nor profit in pretending gloom or grief...Aunt Becky...had the knack of taking the wind out of people's sails that did not make for popularity. She seldom suffered in silence. Her temper was about the average, neither worse nor better and did not sweeten as she grew older. She always behaved herself decently, although many a time it would have been a relief to be indecent. She told the truth almost always, thereby doing a great deal of good and some harm, but she could tell a lie without straining her conscience when people asked questions they had no business to ask. She occasionally used a naughty word under great stress and she could listen to a risky story without turning white around the gills, but obscenity never took the place of wit with her. She paid her debts, went to church regularly, thought gossip was very interesting, liked to be the first to hear a piece of news, and was always especially interested in things that were none of her business....In short, she was an average person who had lived as long as anybody should live. ~A Tangled Web

The Dark and Penhallow clans have intermarried for years on end, and keep each other on their toes with all the scandals and gossip and backbiting that such a strong-minded race is capable of. Keeping them all in order, however, is old Aunt Becky--whose little social levees cause them all to go home licking their wounds and swearing never to be so humiliated again.

This, however, is Aunt Becky's very last social levee. Knowing that she's going to die before the week is over, she brings the family together to give out her possessions and reveal the name of the person who will inherit the prized heirloom jug. Everybody who is everybody comes. Drowned John, who committed the great scandal of swearing at his father's funeral...slinky, sophisticated Nan Penhallow, who smokes cigarettes and wears pajamas...pretty Gay Penhallow, who won't kiss Aunt Becky because Noel Gibson enjoyed that esteemed privilege for the first time the night before...dreamy little dressmaker Margaret Penhallow, who would love to adopt a little baby and be happy...Peter Penhallow, who supposedly hated all women...Joscelyn Dark, who left her husband three hours after their wedding, though no one knows why...Donna Dark and Virginia Powell, who married on the same day and both lost their husbands to the war effort...and a host of others, all with their scandals and quirks. The only thing they have in common is a strong desire for the jug.

But they find, to their great horror, that the question of the jug is not to be settled so easily. Aunt Becky proclaims Dandy Dark the executor of her will as he is the only man among them who can keep a secret, and gives him a sealed envelope. There are three options that could be in that envelope--either she has chosen someone and their name is inside, or she has given directions that the question is to be settled by lot, or she has given Dandy the power to chose someone,  evaluating the behaviour of each person in the clan to see whether or not they are worthy. The envelope can't be opened for a year and a quarter. Whatever each person does for a year and a quarter may or may not have an effect on who the jug goes to.

Aunt Becky dies, and the Dark and Penhallow clan are in for the wildest year and a quarter they have ever known. Love won and love lost, scandals blown up, private quarrels started and ended--aye, they'll remember this year for a long time.

But none of them will come close to guessing who gets the jug and all the family prestige that comes with it.

My Thoughts
I am always astounded by Montgomery's remarkable talent on two scores. First of all, her sensory description is incredible. A broken necklace of gold beads rolling away like little stars on the dusty road, lipstick that makes a girl look like she's made a meal of blood, the highest of heart sorrows captured in a few deft words, and the most ridiculous emotions pictured with a hilarious enjoyment. I will study her books simply for the writing style, in addition to enjoying the stories themselves.
Second, her ability to capture small-town, everyday life in an interesting and engaging manner is enough to turn me green with jealousy. How could she think of all those interesting little tidbits to add to her characters' backgrounds? Just little things, like the way a woman serves a chicken dinner, or all the notorious people who occupied a pew at church. Her detail is incredible, but none of it wordy and none of it unnecessary. It only serves to enhance the main backbone of the tale. I love this about her works.

Alas, there are a few things that cause me to recommend this only to older readers, and then with a fair bit of discernment at that. There's a fair bit of language, and more than in her younger stories, though none of it too crude. A lot of it is used for humor or in climax points.

The other really disturbing plot was of two sailors, and their fight over a nude statue of a woman. Little Sam wins a Catholic raffle, and brings home a little statuette to the great scandal of his housemate Big Sam (who, by the way, are opposite in stature to their names). Big Sam leaves in a high dudgeon until Little Sam promises to get rid of it, and Little Sam promises he never will. Unfortunately the plot ends less than satisfactorily, and the statue is left on the mantelpiece. Actually, it's the last thing to be tied up in the book, and the whole novel ends on a rather tasteless and risque remark. But if you wish to avoid that, you can call the end at part 3 of chapter 6, instead of going on to finish the rest of it.

Altogether, this book leaves me with a mix of feelings. It's not a saints and sinners tale; all the Darks and Penhallows are very much sinners. But it's a picture of real life, and a funny one at that, as well as containing good writing and more than one tear-jerking tale of sacrificial love. There's a thread of redemption running through it; and therefore I'm glad to have read it, and I probably will again when I have the chance.

If you've read it, what did you think?

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Ah...the classic story of a family feud. It sounds very interesting. I've read Jane of Lantern Hill twice now, and I greatly enjoyed it! ;) :D

  2. I've read it but I hardly remember a word of it :(

  3. I've really enjoyed this book--it's one of my favorites of hers--it's similar to Jan Karon's books. I liked the characterizations in it, and there were many choices of right over wrong and of redemption, as Lady B says.

    I concur about the Big Sam/Little Sam plot. I wonder if the book was written as a serial story and so that's why that plot was there. But regardless, it is important to sift a bit on this one.

    Hmmm....her books are smallish and could fit into a carry-on quite well, eh, Lady B? :)

    1. She does remind me of Jan Karon, now that you mention it! I think that's why I enjoyed it so much--because those books, next to the Dickens' type are my favorite. The gossipy little towns full of rich characterization and laugh-out-loud humor.

      I think it would be a perfect one to bring for a little relaxation on the trip. :)


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