A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery

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Reviewed by Mahathi G

A Tangled Web is one of L M Montgomery’s ‘adult’ novels. As such, it is rather different from Montgomery’s usual. There is nothing really ‘adult’ about it in the sense in which we use it these days with regards to books – it is just that this book deals with the affairs of adults in a different way from her usual, episodic plots.

It follows the lives of couples and individuals within the ‘Dark’ and ‘Penhallow’ clans, in a parallel-story structure. The Dark and Penhallow families are old, respected, and proud, and have inter-married for years (just think of the genetic horrors). It all begins with the ‘Dark jug’: a prized heirloom owned by the clan matriarch, ‘Aunt’ Becky. The Dark jug is in all probability practically worthless, besides being rather ugly, but is prized because of its romantic backstory and family history. Aunt Becky is a sarcastic, biting, outspoken old shrew with a hidden soft corner, who loves making people uncomfortable with the ‘truth’. She knows that the clan is all agog to know who will inherit the jug after her death, and so she invites everyone to a ‘levee’ where she intends to dangle before them the prospect of the jug while enjoying herself immensely by cutting everyone down to size.

The night of the levee jumpstarts some relationships while allowing the reader to see the status of others. Aunt Becky drags everyone through the dust. In Montgomery’s words, they attend these ‘levees’ with the expectations that:

They spent two hours of clan gossip, punctuated by Aunt Becky’s gibes and the malice of her smile, and had a cup of tea, sandwiches and several slices of cake. Then they went home and licked their wounds.

Aunt Becky reads her will out loud, and at the end of the night drops a bombshell: the next owner of the jug will be revealed only after a year. In the meanwhile, the jug is entrusted to ‘Dandy’ Dark – this trusteeship puffs him up considerably. The inheritor may or may not be decided by Dandy Dark at the end of the year after careful observation of everyone’s behavior. Aunt Becky thus wickedly consigns aspirants to the jug to give up all their beloved vices, including swearing, alcohol, and playing the violin, without even the surety that their inheritance of the jug depends on it. She contrives, in her will, to give nearly everyone what they don’t want while simultaneously ruining most of their hopes. The levee, and Aunt Becky, are wildly entertaining, and serve to set the stage for all the dramas that will play out over the rest of the book.

To anyone who has read Montgomery’s short stories, these ones are quite predictable. The pleasure in reading Montgomery, however, has never lain in the plot; it is the characters that draw you in. ‘Maud’s’ books are always richly peopled with immensely satisfying characters, who manage to be sweet but not saccharine, sometimes somewhat typical, but not clichéd, and very real. Everything ties up neatly in the end, as it always does with Montgomery, and it leaves you feeling perfectly content, because all the right people end up with each other, and all the mistakes are rectified. She does manage one surprise in the book – although I’m not sure how predictable it is because this was the second time I was reading this book, and I don’t remember whether I was surprised the first time. My favourite threads in this book were probably those of Roger and Gay, and Joscelyn and Hugh. I love second-chance stories, which is probably why Persuasion is one of my favourite Austens. When I found A Tangled Web and The Blue Castle some years ago, I felt like I’d discovered gems. I’d read a lot of Montgomery by then, and I felt I was running out. Her short stories are not really very good; if you’ve read one volume, you’ve read all of them. Even so, I’d re-read the The Road to Yesterday quite a few times. So I pounced on these, and I wasn’t disappointed. If you love Montgomery, you will almost certainly love A Tangled Web; it is very different from the Anne and Emily books, but it has the same heart-warming quality.

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L.M. Montgomery, A Tangled Web (Hesperus Press, 2014), 300pp.

Also read Harriet’s post about L.M. Montgomery here.

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