Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > A Tangled Web

A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery
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Apr 28, 12

bookshelves: fiction, re-read, classics, 2012, my-childhood
Read in April, 2012, read count: 2

It all begins with garrulous Aunt Becky and the infamous Dark jug. She may be dying but the old matriarch of the large Dark and Penhallow clan is determined to throw one last "levee" - and stir up her extended family with her plan for bequeathing the heirloom. Dating back to when the first Darks came to Prince Edward Island in the early 19th century, the Dark jug has been in the family ever since, and with it comes a certain prestige for the owner. Over the generations, the Darks and Penhallows have intermarried time and again, and now they gather in Aunt Becky's rooms to hear what's to become of this jug, and who will get it.

But sharp-tongued Aunt Becky's not about to make things easy for them. She announces that the new owner of the jug will be announced a year from October, and that Dandy Dark is trusted with the secret - or perhaps he will make the decision on her behalf, so everyone should be on their toes.

And so they all are. Drowned John and Titus Dark stop swearing, knowing that Aunt Becky wouldn't give the jug to someone who curses all the time. Tempest Dark decides to finally start his history of the clan that he's been talking about doing for years. And perpetual bachelor Penny Dark thinks maybe he should get married, if he wants to get the jug, and casts his eye upon the spinsters in the clan.

Meanwhile young, pretty Gay Penhallow is caught up in love with Noel Gibson, while her sophisticated and seductive cousin Nan decides to steal him away. Peter Penhallow suddenly and violently falls in love with widowed Donna Dark, whom he has hated since they were children - only he's been travelling through Africa and South America so much he hasn't seen her since, or not until Aunt Becky's infamous final levee. Joscelyn and Hugh Dark, separated on their wedding night for reasons unknown, still yearn for things they cannot have. And forty year old spinster and dressmaker Margaret Penhallow too yearns for things she feels she can never have: a beautiful little baby to adopt and the little old house she calls Whispering Winds.

At the centre of it all is the jug, and Aunt Becky's final surprise.

According to the inscription on the inside of my copy, I got this book for my birthday in 1993 from my brother (meaning, my mum picked it out for him to give to me), when I turned 14. As far as I can remember I only read it once, but I did love it. I'm always wanted to re-read it, and now I finally have I can say that I still love it. Allowing so much to go by meant that it felt like visiting old friends I hadn't seen in a long time, but with all the surprises still intact: I couldn't remember what had driven Hugh and Joscelyn apart, I couldn't remember how Donna and Peter finally overcame her father, Drowned John's, refusal to let them marry; and I couldn't quite remember what happened to Gay Penhallow - though I was pretty sure she did end up with thirty-year-old Roger, the clan doctor (rest assured, it's not as Jane Austen as it sounds - Gay is no Mariane Dashwood).

There are of course A LOT of characters to keep track of, and at first they tend to blend one into another (for instance, there are two Penny Darks: one is the bachelor and the other is Joscelyn's sister-in-law), and it doesn't help that they go by the old naming conventions (e.g. "Mrs Frank Dark"); you'd think it would but it doesn't.

But Montgomery focuses on the main characters, and since the novel takes place over about a year and a half, we get to know characters, progress somewhat with their story, then come back to them later, so you do get very familiar with them - and like I said, they start to feel like your own crazy extended family! Montgomery is so good at writing these character sketches (one has only to read those scenes set around the dinner table at family gatherings in The Blue Castle to get a sense for it), that for all their eccentricities you have to wonder just how many of them were based on real people Montgomery knew.

The pacing is wonderful: brisk and rolling like gentle hills, here getting dramatic, then slowing down again for a spell, a breather, before dashing off into a new plot. Perhaps the most tragic character for me was little Brian Dark, whose mother, Laura, died when he was young, never revealing who the father was, so that Brian lives with his uncle Duncan Dark and his family, barely fed or clothed and given endless chores, mostly to look after the dairy cows. It broke my heart a little bit, especially now that I have my own little boy.

The story is told with Montgomery's usual insightful wit and honesty, and an artist's touch: she knew when to get in there and strip a character bare, and when to hold back and let things reveal themselves to the observant reader, on their own. I should add a warning for American readers: the final sentence does include the "n-word", which should be taken in the context of the period it was written in, as well as the character who uses it - don't let it put you off this author, who weaves magic with her words in the simplest, most unpretentious ways.
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