Anne of Green Gables is pretty nearly a perfect book. Even if you don’t love the story or the character, it is hard deny that Anne Shirley, in her debut novel, has been an international sensation for more than 100 years. According to Wikipedia, Anne of Green Gables has been translated into 36 languages and has sold over 50 million copies. The ever optimistic and always romantic Anne Shirley jumps off the page and into our hearts. It seems that she leaves an indelible mark on the soul of many of her readers.
I wish that I could, but I cannot say the same thing about the sequels. While many of the other books in the Anne series are perfectly good in their own right, they pale in comparison to the original. In fact, Diane and I have often said that it seemed as though Montgomery put her best work into that first book and spent the rest of her career failing to find a way to recreate the magic of the first Anne book.
Anne of Avonlea is a charming story. Were it not for the original book, however, I seriously doubt that it would have had much staying power. Part of what makes the sequel charming is how much we love the first book. Perhaps there’s just too much Marilla in me, but the things that I found endearing in a 11-year-old character, I find annoying in a 17-year-old character. Anne’s routine flights of fancy in the original book seem very appropriate to a girl who is tasting new found security and freedom. In Anne of Avonlea, however, I was hoping that her wild imagination would be tempered with some maturity and that some new wisdom would make her a more interesting character. Sadly, I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes at Anne’s all too predictable scrapes and her overly dramatic responses to nearly everything. Frankly, I found Anne of Avonlea more exhausting than beautiful. There is a lot to love about the story, but I also found myself wishing that Montgomery had had a better editor.
There is a lot of commentary about Montgomery’s intentions with these books. I have often heard that maybe she never really wanted to Anne to grow up, but that the pressure from the success of the first book forced her into continuing the story. And I think that Montgomery hints at this in the character of Miss Lavendar.
In this second novel, Montgomery introduces a marvelous new character: an artistic kindred spirit who has a romantic tragedy in her history and has never married. Twenty-five years before, Miss Lavendar quarreled with her fiancé, Stephen Irving, and lost him. I think we are all supposed to know that Miss Lavendar’s story is a cautionary tale for Anne and Gilbert. But I also think that Miss Lavendar may have been Montgomery writing herself into the story.
When Anne brings her pupil, Paul Irving, to meet Miss Lavendar and the two strike up a friendship, Miss Lavendar confesses to Paul that she has an imaginary boy that she lets live in her imagination. She adds that he is about the same age as Paul, and the age that Anne was in the first book, and that she never lets him age. She wants to keep him 11 forever so that he doesn’t grow up and leave her. When I read that passage, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was how Montgomery felt about Anne. Anne of Avonlea is a coming of age story and I feel like Montgomery did not know how to grow Anne into the character that she should become without sacrificing the 11-year-old orphan that she and so many millions loved.
Part of our reason in reviewing this series is to help parents understand the tone and content of each story so they can discern if and when their children will be ready for them. Because the Anne series ultimately spans two generations, it has books which are light and delightful for children, it has books which center on romance, and it has books which deal with hard matters. I credit Montgomery for giving us some of everything.
Anne of Green Gables is, as I said above, a nearly perfect children’s book. Anne of Avonlea continues to be wholesome, but it has some complicated relationships in it and begins to deal lightly with romance, courtships, and weddings. If you are hoping to keep your young reader out of romance novels at this time, this is probably a book to avoid.
Things to note in this story:
Anne and Marilla become guardians of orphaned twins. While their childish antics are entertaining, I think that Marilla sums up the situation well in a conversation that she has with Rachel Lynde: Davy’s never ending questions are often strange and argumentative and Anne’s answers are often not much better.
Green Gables gets a new neighbor in Mr. Harrison. Without spoiling, it is important to note that Mr. Harrison’s appearance in Avonlea is prompted by his running away from something rather significant. It sorts itself out humorously and well, but it isn’t ideal fare for young children.
Diana gets engaged.
The Miss Lavendar story line is endearing and romantic. But it is just that: romantic.
The last chapter of Anne of Avonlea feels very final to me. After re-reading it today, I was really surprised that there were more Anne books after this one was published.
“Then the veil dropped again; but the Anne who walked up the dark lane was not quite the same Anne who had driven gaily down it the evening before. The page of girlhood had been turned, as by an unforeseen finger, and the page of womanhood was before her with all of its charm and mystery, its pain and gladness.
Gilbert wisely said nothing more; but in his silence he read the history of the next four years in the light of Anne’s remembered blush…”
As I write this, I am already several chapters into the next book in the series, Anne of the Island. So far, I love Anne of the Island. Totally different than the first two books, it is a lot of fun. Full of romance and adventure. It reminds me of Daddy Long Legs, and I find the new characters to be lovable. It is, however, most certainly collegiate and adult in theme. So, also not a great fit for families who are trying to limit romantic novels.
Reminder: if you are wondering what we think of that abominable new Netflix series, Anne With An E, our essay can be found here.