After reading the entire Anne of Green Gables series, and finding myself delighted with The Blue Castle, I was pleased to pick up A Tangled Web. It’s another novel for adults. A Tangled Web, however, is a massive disappointment that shows the worst of the author’s pettiness, which occasionally rises to the surface in her other novels.
Firstly, the premise was unappealing; I bought this book without first reading the synopsis because I’ve enjoyed all previous Montgomery novels. A Tangled Web opens in a small incestuous community. The Dark and Penhallow families have been intermarrying for generations. Everyone is married to some cousin, and not out of lack of options. Oh, no. It would be wicked shameful to marry outside the family, so on and on these two clans marry, until everyone is related in some way. The designated matriarch is Aunt Becky, an old piece-of-crap human who lives to remind people, in public, of their most shameful moments.
But she has some leverage: Aunt Becky has an inherited family heirloom — a broken jug (what kind of jug?? who keeps a jug???). Every Dark and Penhallow wants this thing, from the most seafaring fellow to the most delicate teen girl. Aunt Becky has been told she’s going to die, so she calls the clans together, reminds them of why they’re garbage humans, and then says in fifteen-months’ time a trustee of the jug will reveal who gets it. Aunt Becky might tell the trustee whom to choose, or she might let him choose. Basically, whatever a person’s faults are could keep them from receiving the jug:
The jug may not be given to any one older than a certain age or to any unmarried person who, in my judgment, should be married, or to any person who has been married too much. It may not be give to any one who has habits I don’t like. It may not be given to any one who quarrels or wastes his time fiddling. It may not be given to any one addicted to swearing or drinking. It may not be given to any untruthful person or any dishonest person or any extravagant person. . . . It may not be given to any one who has NO bad habits and never did anything disgraceful. . . . It many not be given to any one who begins things and never finishes them, or any one who writes bad poetry.
And so it begins. Everyone tries to fundamentally change who they are fifteen months for a broken jug.
Little motive is given for wanting the jug, and apparently Aunt Becky’s whole shtick is to stir people up and watch hope they live miserable lives. I know there are people who love to make other folks feel dejected for “fun,” but that is the behavior of someone lacking in empathy. Furthermore, because Aunt Becky has called every Dark and Penhallow to her deathbed for the big announcement, we meet dozens of characters in a few pages. Are we meant to keep them straight? I don’t think so, but for a reader who enjoys the casual romance-type novels Montgomery wrote, it’s overwhelming and off-putting at first. You don’t know where to invest your focus.
Then, we zoom in on a dozen characters (still too many). Gay Penhallow has fallen in love with Noel, who is not a Dark or Penhallow, so everyone hates him. Joscelyn Penhallow and Hugh Dark, married ten years, have lived apart ever since their wedding night, when Joscelyn walked the three miles in her wedding dress back to her parents’ house, and has never told anyone why. The pair are still legally wed. Donna Dark, a war widow, has spent her recent years with her best friend, Virginia, also a war widow, weeping and wailing away. But is it time for Donna to move on, and what would the clans say about it? You get a fifty-something old maid who wants a baby, Big Sam and Little Sam and their bickering, an ill-treated Harry Potter-type, etc. As you can see, Montgomery functions like a spider, laying a web for a bunch of empty-headed characters to get tangled up in. She leads readers down a predictable path and then sweeps the rug out from under us (to switch metaphors).
Once the rug was yanked, I didn’t care about anybody. They fall in love after a chaste kiss on the cheek; fall out of love when they notice someone has the smallest physical imperfection — a mole, for instance. Can you imagine upending your entire life when your live-long housemate keeps a statue that you hate? Or wasting a decade on the memory of a stranger only to find out he’s gained weight and is losing a bit of hair and decide so he’s a piece of crap instead of getting to know him? A Tangled Web is so teeth-grindingly petty. I kept reading because I wanted to know who ended up with whom, but once I hit a string of grumbles that really demonstrated what a shallow pool Montgomery could be, I just quit — at 79%. You really have to shit the bed for me to DNF that late in the game.
But I was curious. So I headed to Goodreads and looked for reviews that spoiled the ending. Apparently, nothing gets resolved, but A Tangled Web does conclude with a huge racist joke that evokes the n-word. . .