A bold, heartfelt tale of life at Green Gables . . . before Anne: A marvelously entertaining and moving historical novel, set in rural Prince Edward Island in the nineteenth century, that imagines the young life of spinster Marilla Cuthbert, and the choices that will open her life to the possibility of heartbreak—and unimaginable greatness.
Plucky and ambitious, Marilla Cuthbert is thirteen years old when her world is turned upside down. Her beloved mother dies in childbirth, and Marilla suddenly must bear the responsibilities of a farm wife: cooking, sewing, keeping house, and overseeing the day-to-day life of Green Gables with her brother, Matthew and father, Hugh.
In Avonlea—a small, tight-knit farming town on a remote island—life holds few options for farm girls. Her one connection to the wider world is Aunt Elizabeth “Izzy” Johnson, her mother’s sister, who managed to escape from Avonlea to the bustling city of St. Catharines. An opinionated spinster, Aunt Izzy’s talent as a seamstress has allowed her to build a thriving business and make her own way in the world.
Emboldened by her aunt, Marilla dares to venture beyond the safety of Green Gables and discovers new friends and new opportunities. Joining the Ladies Aid Society, she raises funds for an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity in nearby Nova Scotia that secretly serves as a way station for runaway slaves from America. Her budding romance with John Blythe, the charming son of a neighbor, offers her a possibility of future happiness—Marilla is in no rush to trade one farm life for another. She soon finds herself caught up in the dangerous work of politics, and abolition—jeopardizing all she cherishes, including her bond with her dearest John Blythe. Now Marilla must face a reckoning between her dreams of making a difference in the wider world and the small-town reality of life at Green Gables.
Okay, confession time. Here it goes…I’ve never read Anne of Green Gables. There. I said it. However, I do own it so I know I’ll be reading it eventually. When I was gifted this book in exchange for an honest review, I was very excited. I know how loved the Anne of Green Gables series is for so many readers, and I honestly was super eager to know what McCoy’s story would spark in terms of conversation amongst those faithful lovers of Anne Shirley and her world (I have yet to read others’ reviews but I hope they’re good ones because I loved this book).
The author’s lyrical prose was beautiful and easy to read. It immediately transported me to the world of Green Gables. Having had no real exposure to it, I felt McCoy did a great job in describing the Avonlea setting and the political and cultural atmosphere of the 1800s (the “private versus public” spheres of family included).
I also thought the author did an amazing job with the character arc of Marilla. Since taking over her mother’s role in the home, joining the Ladies’ Aid Society, working toward a cause, having her heart broken, and taking a political stand at such a young age made Marilla a very well rounded character. This is the extent of the Marilla I know (from this book) so, for me, McCoy executed her heroine well.
Perhaps my favorite character in the entire story was Aunt Izzy. I love spinsters (perhaps because I thought I would become one when I was younger), and the wisdom they exude. Izzy is an unconventional character during the time period in which she lives in (an entrepreneur, unmarried woman) and she makes the best out of her situation. I love her insights and points of view on life, love, and business. And the way her relationship with Marilla blossoms throughout the story is heartwarming.
Overall, this was a lighthearted read, but one where I learned about Canada’s underground railroad and other historical events that took place around the time, aspects in books I always appreciate. I believe the author went to great lengths to research this world and to do justice to L.M Montgomery’s legacy (read the Author’s Note). I enjoyed traveling the world of Avonlea and getting to know Marilla’s character through the eyes of McCoy.
My recommendations: I think fans of the Anne of Green Gables series, historical fiction readers and Victorian era readers will enjoy this book.
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