Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
(Click the titles to find the book descriptions/blurbs.)
Review of The Emily Novels: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest, which I’ll refer to as Childhood, Girlhood, and Womanhood, to cut down on the repetition of Emily’s name. The books are classic, but as a forewarning, there are spoilers here. I delayed before finally reviewing the books, to make sure I would do them justice, as far as my powers of reflection go.
Some of the best reading of my life, twice. I read the series in adolescence and again in adulthood to examine some of the literature that influenced my thought processes about growing up, back while I was growing up, and though I was introduced to Anne of Green Gables first—-by way of television, videos, and hearing so much about her—-I read all of Emily’s books before I read Anne’s. Black-haired, purplish-gray-eyed Emily is similar to red-haired, gray-eyed Anne in the fact that neither girl is generally agreed upon to be “beautiful,” so to speak (Emily not being beautiful so much as her countenance makes one think of beautiful things), but they’re the kind of girls people enjoy looking at anyway. What’s more, both girls are orphans and writers. Go figure. It’s important to note, though, that Emily takes her writing further than Anne does.
Emily’s series also resembles Anne’s in the sentiment that there’s a certain bleakness in the fact that childhood must inevitably pass and, alas, humans who live long enough are destined (or doomed?) to become adults at some point. Did Montgomery truly feel that way? I did find Womanhood, the shortest of the novels, to be the dreariest of the three. Even where Childhood and Girlhood have chapter titles like “Living Epistles,” “A Weaver of Dreams,” “The Woman Who Spanked the King,” and “A Valley of Vision,” the Womanhood chapters are Roman numeral-numbered and otherwise nameless, with more numerals rather starkly hailing the separation of sections within the chapters. However, I suspect that a number of Emily’s circumstances that bring on the dreariness don’t necessarily have to follow adulthood as a rule, though they happen to follow hers. Moreover, Womanhood does have its bright points, and I was so into Emily’s world by that time, I couldn’t help relishing the third novel in a different but equal way as the first two.
Ben Stahl’s depictions of Emily on the Laurel-Leaf/Bantam book editions are among my favorite pieces of book cover art in that they do indeed say something accurate about Emily in each of the stages of her life we’re told about, particularly in her facial expressions. And how could one not love Girlhood’s cover, with all of that deep blue, moonbeams on Emily’s hair, and the evening lights out across the water?
Emily, Teddy, Ilse, and Perry work well together as characters, and it’s lovely seeing them come up as a bunch, with all of their various talents and dreams. I understand Perry’s early fixation with Emily, and Ilse’s lifelong attachment to Perry, but I’m not wholly satisfied with the way Ilse and Perry get together. I feel for the young man, as Ilse is so hard on him when his apparent “Stovepipe Town”-ness reveals itself, and it’s touching and even relieving to learn that Ilse’s behavior is the result of her being in love with Perry all this time. And, for lack of more suitable wording, I’m absolutely pumped about the way Ilse up and jilts Teddy on what is supposed to be her wedding day when she thinks Perry is dying. Go for it, Ilse! Yet, I’m not convinced that Perry feels for Ilse all that she does for him, at least not as intensely. But, she will have her Perry in the end, that’s all there is to it, and imagining that the two of them will make an admirable pair in the long run, I’ve resolved to be content with how their coupling finally comes about, after so many bumps along the way.
This four-character bunch is indeed led by a worthy and unforgettable protagonist: Emily, naturally. Her father, Douglas, is only alive for the first two chapters of Childhood, but the strength of his relationship with his daughter is firmly established in their short time together, and Douglas’s personal reflections about Emily set the tone for the course of her journey. “She will love deeply—-she will suffer terribly—-she will have glorious moments to compensate—-as I have had.” For the rest of the series, we find Emily engrossed in just that: the depths of loving and suffering, and moments of glory that make it all worth it. The aspect of her childhood that gets me the most is her letter writing to her deceased father: not the fact that she writes to him but that she eventually stops doing it, all without my notice until the letters are referred to later on. It gets me because it’s so like the progression through our lives as children, those things that we set aside and go on living without, whether or not we can pinpoint the exact day and time the setting aside took place.
In some ways, I’ve related to Emily more than to any other character I’ve read. I understand what “the flash” is like for her. I’m just as embarrassed as she is when she unknowingly goes to class in high school with a mustache someone drew on her face while she was asleep. Sure, Emily may have a gift; she has something, to be sure, but it would be best if people didn’t call her psychic, at least not to her face. Then, there’s her life as a writer. I indubitably get that. Beyond her having to get over her tendency to use an overabundance of italics, that moment in Girlhood, “In the Old John House,” speaks volumes to me.
“I’ve a pocket full of dreams to sell,” said Teddy, whimsically, with a new, unaccountable gaiety of voice and manner. …”What will you give me for a dream?”
Emily turned around—-stared at him for a moment—-then forgot thrills and spells and everything else… …she saw unrolling before her a dazzling idea for a story—-complete even to the title—-A Seller of Dreams.
…She would not try to write it yet—-oh, not for years. She must wait until time and experience had made of her pen an instrument capable of doing justice to her conception…
I know I’m not the only writer or artist who has ever had that ethereal moment, when just one, fleeting something—-a chill, an echo, the click of a lamp, a question (What will you give me for a dream?)—-ignites the flame of an entire work that blazes suddenly into consciousness. There’s nothing like it on earth. It’s beyond a shame that Dean’s fear leads him to lie about the quality of A Seller of Dreams when Emily finally writes it as a woman, and she consequently burns it, not knowing until much later that Dean has deceived her.
Now, speaking of the immensely memorable Dean (how sad that his nickname around town should be “Jarback” for his malformed shoulder and slight limp), his part in the story is likely why my heart ached more, with both pleasure and pain, reading this story than any other fiction I’d read before, the first time I read the series. I guess it surprised me a little, during my own process of shifting from my childhood to girlhood, to know exactly what Dean means when, after he saves Emily’s life in Childhood, he muses to her, “I think I’ll wait for you,” though he’s a man of thirty-six. Wait for her he does, nevertheless, loving her in a way she’ll never be able to love him in return, as much as she cares for him, and there’s something so compelling and even dear in their relationship, despite the fact that he’ll be forever unable to eclipse Teddy’s place in Emily’s soul. I couldn’t help but ache for Dean, especially at points like reading a Girlhood journal entry of Emily’s:
” ‘Well, you know long ago you promised you would teach me how to make love artistically.’
“I said it in a teasing way, just for a joke. But Dean seemed suddenly to become very much in earnest.
” ‘Are you ready for the teaching?’ he said, bending forward.
“For one crazy moment I really thought he was going to kiss me. …all at once I thought of Teddy. I didn’t know what to say… …I went in—-and Dean went home. I watched him from my window, limping down the lane. He seemed very lonely, and all at once I felt terribly sorry for him. …I forget there must be another side to his life. I can fill only such a little corner of it. The rest must be very empty.”
Yes, Emily thinks to herself that Dean “is not hurt any longer” when he gives her the deed to the Disappointed House as a wedding present for her and Teddy, at the close of Womanhood. Emily thinks it, but I don’t believe it all the way. What must it cost Dean, and what constitution of character must he have, to be able to take the house, the one he’d prepared to live in with the woman he’d dreamed of and waited for, and to turn it over to said woman and the other man she’s going to marry instead? Dean does it so that the Disappointed House will “be disappointed no longer.” Heartbreakingly beautiful.
I almost feel bad for having a bit more to say about Dean than Teddy, but Teddy, a handsome artist, is such a must, such a given. I would’ve liked at least a chapter more of Emily and Teddy together before the conclusion of the series, after so many years of scares, misunderstandings, and disappointments between the two of them. That pair is set in my mind long before Emily saves Teddy from going to his death on the Flavian in Womanhood, even way before the night she’s aware of her falling in love with him back “In the Old John House.” I would’ve liked more, but I reckon, all things considered, when Emily hears that last, momentous whistle signaling for her in Lofty John’s bush, and Teddy lets her know, “I’ve been trying all my life to tell you I love you,” it’s enough, in its own way.
Of course, Montgomery’s unfailingly splendid descriptions of places like Blair Water add to what is, as I said, some of the best reading of my life.