A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery

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.

Not the cover of my copy, which is an e-book that contains A Tangled Web and The Blue Castle, but it fits well.

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. . .

37 comments

  1. Yikes, I don’t remember that last line at all though I can recall how things are resolved. As I said, I liked this one as a kid but your criticisms are all valid. I don’t think the characters are particularly realistic and most of them make terrible decisions. Montgomery seems to want us to think that Aunt Becky did the right thing by throwing them into chaos and making them change their lives but in reality she would be an awful person. And their clan would be dealing with a lot more genetic health issues!

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    • This is labeled an adult novel, but I do think it might have appealed to me when I was twelve, the same age you were when you enjoyed it. Part of the reason I could overlook much of the wrongdoing at a younger age is at that time I was not as good at discerning what was mean and cruel vs. a valid concern or fear.

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      • I never think of any of Montgomery’s work as adult…maybe The Blue Castle? I think as a pre-teen reader I probably thought these could be real issues. Like, maybe people do fall in love with someone else at their own wedding? I do recall being dissatisfied that Gay ended up with Roger (is that his name?) Not because I thought she belonged with Noel but simply because Roger seemed old and kind of weird the way he kept hanging around her.

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  2. This is the last of LMM’s books that I have to read and I saw your comment on an earlier post that hinted that you didn’t like this one, but I’m not reading your post, so I won’t know exactly why (although I do know all about the last bits of the book). I’d been thinking about reading it this year but decided at the last minute not to add it to my reading plans for this year…maybe next year. Fortunately you can always reread The Blue Castle!

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  3. I’ve enjoyed your journey with Montgomery though I’ve only read a couple of the early Annes. Perhaps this is one of the she needed the money ones.
    At 79% I would have skip read to the end. With audiobooks I’m not liking I often miss the middle and listen to the last chapter .

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    • Ha, you’re just as bad as Biscuit! She’s constantly trying to read the end just to torture me! I do wonder if this was a make-money book or if this was one of those books that made her feel more like herself, as if she’d written a book that represents her interests.

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  4. I actually really enjoy this one, moreso than The Blue Castle (which is also arguably melodramatic, unreaslistic, and a tad bit silly!) I don’t read it as Montgomery being petty, but as her laying out the faults of a very insulated community or, in this case, an entire family that’s a bit too obsessed with itself and its status. Everyone’s always up in everyone else’s business, which ends up messing up their lives because they worry too much about everyone else and not enough about what they want themselves. I think it’s interesting that many of them begin by acting a certain way because they want to be honored with the family jug, but many of them end up realizing that they don’t care in the end–they would rather be happy than honored by a vindictive person like Aunt Becky.

    I also think that, when Montgomery’s characters notice a “deal breaker” like a mole, we’re not supposed to take it literally. I think it’s more like when you start to dislike someone and then suddenly everything they do is annoying to you, even if it’s perfectly innocent. The mole is a stand-in for their larger realizations about why the person isn’t the one for them.

    The book does end with a racist sentence, though, which is unfortunate, to say the least.

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    • I read the nitpicking as literal. For instance, the man Jocelyn left Hugh for arrives, and before she even speaks to him, she notices he’s gotten fat and is instantly repulsed. Given that her reaction is one that people have in society today, I don’t read it as building up small things. I do, however, see what you’re saying with the Sams — one minute they are friends and the next they have a list of grievances stored up for years, including small things. I wish more of the book had been like that! Once we know someone SO well, we file away all their faults and use them (unfairly) as arsenal later. This is a reason I hear people say they’re afraid to get divorced; the other person knows too much!

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      • Oh, for sure, I think Jocelyn’s feelings are meant to be taken seriously. I read that as Jocelyn seeing her old flame as now “unattractive” and readers are supposed to understand that she is truly over him now because she’s no longer able/willing to “overlook his flaws” like she might if she were in love. I would agree that is Montgomery’s personal opinion coming through in Jocelyn and it’s not necessarily a comfortable moment to behold.

        Also, yes to the Sams. The statue I think is just a convenient item for them to store all their old resentments in. I don’t think it was really about the statue, in the end.

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    • I read some reviews on Goodreads where readers said that LMM has a fairly racist, petty streak and that this book showcases it. I haven’t read any biographies of her, but I do know she focuses greatly on appearances, even in her nonfiction.

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  5. YIKES! I feel bad, like I should apologize on behalf of all Canadians (we really do say ‘sorry’ alot). I actually haven’t read this book, but I have Blue Castle on my shelf so I should clearly pick that one up and be done with it…

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  6. I have never read any L. M. Montgomery, mainly because Anne of Green Gables never appealed, but this review is really confirming for me that this is an author I’m happy to let pass me by… this sort of pettiness just drives me insane (and I think I’m just too old to appreciate Anne as a first-time reader these days). I am in awe that you made it so far through, tbh!

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    • If you’re going to read any Montgomery, just because you’re curious, try The Blue Castle. It’s a bonkers, rude family, but that is short lived, and before you know it, this elderly daughter (she’s a woman) runs off with a hermit and zip around in a car — they’re just total heathens to society, but it’s lots of fun.

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  7. What a shame – I’ve got so much affection for the Anne books but have never ventured outside them, since I wondered if I would be disappointed. I think in the later Annes we get a glimpse of this Montgomery. I remember as a teenager reading one of them, maybe Rainbow Valley, where a man is calling on two sisters: one who’s beautiful but boring and a bit stupid, and one who is plain but whip-smart and great company. At the end of his calling-on period he marries the pretty one and breaks the plain one’s heart, and it’s presented as a really beautiful great romance – and it’s annoyed me ever since! She was really focused on appearances in her books.

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    • Yeah, LMM’s personality creeps in on moments like that. A Tangled Web is pretty much that moment from Rainbow Valley for 200+ pages. I really enjoyed The Blue Castle and think you would like it too. The whip-smart person runs off with a hermit and scandalize the town.

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  8. It’s been a long time since I read this book, but I’m going to go ahead and say that LMM was probably making fun of people and that’s why everything seems so petty and ridiculous. She is known to make fun of small-town pettiness–including the focus on appearances– and the reluctance to accept outsiders. (Which is kind of ironic since she is also known to be just as racist as the next person, and I do remember that this book showcases the worst of it.) But I also get how all this could rub someone the wrong way – especially a whole book of it! Luckily, there are so many others to choose from… the Emily books are so good! And The Story Girl or Jane of Lantern Hill or Kilmeny of the Orchard…

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    • I’m inclined to check out the Emily books after so many glowing reviews of the series, especially the folks who say they like Emily’s stories better than Anne’s. The Blue Castle felt like a great example of LMM making fun of small-mindedness and was done well.

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      • True! I should look up what her life circumstances were when she wrote A Tangled Web…

        A quick search in my book tells me that 1) LMM was “frustrated by what was happening to her own reputation through the latter 1920s”, 2) she felt it “unfair” that her audience weren’t taking her seriously as a writer of adult books after The Blue Castle came out, 3) LMM had “long been contemplating a novel about the tangled clan structure of the Scottish population in Prince Edward Island”, and 4) “she saw a way to build this story around one of her most prized family heirlooms, the old Woolner jug” – the Woolners being her grandmother’s family.

        Emily is so good!

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    • I remember truly enjoying that LMM pandemic story you shared earlier last year. I’ve been reading about more uncontrolled viruses and bacteria lately, and instead of making me feel scared, I’m better assured that this “not normal” state has been normal throughout history. For instance, The Plague & I by Betty MacDonald, which is about the author’s experience in a sanitarium because she had tuberculosis.

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