Simply put, life is in a kind of crazy limbo right now. My husband’s been at home on disability since May (he’s recovering from a work injury–a bone spur). My son will be having tendon transfer surgery at Shriner’s a week from today (his second–he’s got bilateral clubfoot). These issues aren’t life-threatening, but it’s still something to deal with. The thing is to keep everybody busy and life as normal as possible, even with a husband on crutches and, as of next week, a kid using a walker. As Edith Schaeffer once wrote, “There is never a neat little portion of time labelled: ‘Time for exclusive care of upheaval, all other obligations have ceased.'”
What’s that? Christmas is in two weeks? Heh. Zoikes.
In light of that, it seems rather fitting that when I cast my eye over my bookshelf for something to read, I lit on A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery. One of her lesser-known and less successful works, Web follows two families, the Penhallows and the Darks, who have intermarried for sixty years. The story begins with Aunt Becky, the matriarch of the Dark-Penhallow clans, calling everyone together for a “levee”, or “gathering.” Aunt Becky is famous for these levees, which consist of family gossip punctuated by Auntie’s commentary, not to mention a light tea. This levee is no different, but there’s a catch: Aunt Becky announces that she’s dying. She then proceeds to dole out her treasured possessions one by one, but the jug is what’s on everyone’s mind. Yes, a jug. Remember that old song about giving your love a cherry? Apparently it was the fashion at one time to give one’s love a jug. Why, I don’t know. It’s not like giving someone jewelry or a lock of hair. Anyway, the Dark-Penhallow jug was brought over to Canada from England, and in spite of being cracked and mended, is a treasured and revered family heirloom. The plot of Web therefore revolves around one big question: Who will get Aunt Becky’s jug?
Not so fast, boys and girls. We, along with the Darks and the Penhallows, have to wait a year in book-time before that pressing query is satisfied. Meanwhile, life goes on. Aunt Becky’s levee not only presents the all-important jug. It also introduces the family members and numerous subplots with which we’ll be spending that year. In a way, Web reminds me of the film Dinner At Eight, with all the sordid dramas leading up to the denoument. One subplot revolves around Gay Penhallow, who is head-over-heels for Noel Gibson, and her little minx of a cousin, Nan Penhallow, who has spent her life lying in wait to make Gay miserable. Another subplot involves Hugh and Joscelyn Dark, the latter of whom walked away from her husband’s home on their wedding night for reasons no one could figure out. Still another subplot concerns Margaret Dark, who wants a husband and a child more than anything, and who shoehorns herself into an engagement (to one of her distant relations, of course). There are other subplots besides these, and the reader has to constantly switch gears and narratives, which may bother some people. However, Montgomery hops back and forth so skillfully between all the different characters that it’s hard not to devour it once the mind is acclimated. Her trademark humor and color are all there, with a healthy dose of sass.
Who winds up with the jug? Sorry, but I’m going to let that carrot dangle. It’s a twisty carrot, to say the least.
The reasons A Tangled Web was less successful than Montgomery’s previous novels were twofold. First of all, Web was pitched to the wrong market. According to Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, Montgomery disliked being pigeonholed as a children’s author. She attempted to break out of that, but her publisher seemed unwilling to allow it. The second reason for its lackluster success was that the book was released soon after the stock market crash of 1929. If anyone knows the reason for this, please feel free to tell me, because all the sources I read didn’t go into detail as to why this would affect public reception. Maybe a family eyeing an heirloom seemed frivolous in the new anxiety-ridden reality.
No matter the reason, it’s a shame the public didn’t take to A Tangled Web. It’s not my favorite of L.M. Montgomery’s writings (that would be Jane of Lantern Hill), but it’s still a fun little bit of escapism. That’s always much appreciated, whether escape is needed or not.