Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

Marilla of Green Gables


Goodreads: Marilla of Green Gables
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: October 23, 2018

Official Summary

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 has 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.

Star Divider


It’s always difficult for an author to try to work in the world of a beloved author, particularly one with such a recognizable and complex style of L. M. Montgomery, and I admit I’m not always the type of reader who gives them the chance. I haven’t read Before Green Gables, for instance, because I simply wasn’t interested in some random person’s take on Anne Shirley’s life before arriving on Prince Edward Island.  However, the idea of finding out Marilla’s story (even if not officially from Montgomery herself) was beguiling, and McCoy seems to have put a lot of thought and research into her work, so I was willing to give Marilla of Green Gables a try.  The novel isn’t perfect, but it did feel surprisingly like home, like Avonlea, to me, and I think I can recommend it to Anne fans in good conscience.

Marilla’s character was actually a bit of sticking point for me.  Writing characters as both children and adults is always a bit tricky (although Montgomery herself does an amazingly skillful job of bringing Anne herself from 11 to adulthood in her 8 book series), and I could see McCoy struggling with trying to write a Marilla who sounds like the sensible no-nonsense woman we know from canon but who also sounds lighthearted enough to be a young teen.  (She’s a teen for most of the book, though the novel does jump a large number of years near the end.)  I found the execution a bit choppy, particularly near the beginning, and it felt as though Marilla would switch kind of randomly from having fanciful ideas to spouting sensible statements one can imaging her making in middle-age.

However, I think some of the other characterizations were stronger and helped balance this out. I particularly liked Rachel White (not yet Lynde) whom McCoy imagines as a vivacious girl who does share her opinions indiscriminately but also is sociable and kind and has a sense of humor. You can actually see why she and Marilla might be good friends. I also thought the depiction of Matthew as reliable and introverted but not quite as shy as he is in Anne of Green Gables was fair.

The other point I’m a bit torn on is the plot.  There are moments that really seem to bring Montgomery’s Avonlea to life–picnics, walks into town, minor confrontations with disgruntled teachers.  But there is also the sense that McCoy felt the need to make things more “interesting” than apparently small town life is.  (And she’s not alone. The recent crop of Anne adaptations keep adding “dramatic” scenes with people nearly drowning or with Anne accidentally being sent back to the orphanage, etc.)  To this end, McCoy add a number of subplots focused on political rebelling, the question of women’s rights, and the Underground Railroad.

Now, Montgomery herself was no stranger to wild plot points, but I associate her with things like crazy proposals, people dangling precariously off cliffs, and possibly supernatural events (and, actually, these all occur in the Emily books, not in Anne.) McCoy’s plot points all seem very topical.  Certainly they’re interesting. I’m not sure they’re in line with something Montgomery would write.  And even though readers know that Marilla has a kind heart and strong spirit, I find it hard to imagine her acting as a conductor on the Underground Railroad or getting into political debates with the local men.

Yet the things I liked outweigh he things I was scratching my head at, and I do think McCoy largely got the spirit of the story right.  It was nice seeing this vision of Avonlea before Anne got there, and I did learn some things about the existence of Black inhabitants of PEI (who are completely glossed over in Montgomery), which I’m interested into looking into further.  So, no, of course this isn’t the Marilla story that Montgomery herself would have written, but it’s pretty good.

4 stars Briana

14 thoughts on “Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

  1. Krysta says:

    I liked this one, but I’m not convinced McCoy captured Marilla and Rachel. I don’t think there’s any evidence in the Anne books that Marilla was secretly a dreamer/big ole softie who always wanted children. And I think Rachel White came off as a hyper Anne Shirley, which isn’t true to her character. Sure, people can change and maybe become bitter or jaded. But Marilla just doesn’t come across as a daydreamer, ever. Nor does Rachel.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yeah, I’m not convinced all young people are daydreamers (not enough to be characterized as such), but that seems to be the author’s stance on writing children here. I assume she’s influenced by Anne, but it seems obvious that not everyone is an Anne and Montgomery herself wrote characters who are not like Anne at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        Yeah, I can think of plenty of people who never daydreamed about having a holy wound and plenty of people who seem immune to the beauty of nature. I don’t think everyone starts out as Anne and then fades with life circumstances.

        I also thought the Underground Railroad plotline was out of character. The book seems to want to make her progressive, which is also out of character with what we know of her in the later books. I’m also not convinced she’s as noble as the book wants me to belief. Her major contribution is convincing someone else to become a conductor. Her life and livelihood really aren’t on the line.


  2. Anjana says:

    I really liked your review! I so wanted to revisit the land of green gables when I read this.I liked Marilla but somehow with me Matthew’s courting life was a miss 😦 since I remember faintly a conversation he had with Anne to the contrary, this coloured my reaction to the young Matthew


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I also have mixed thoughts about Matthew. It seemed as if the author needed an “explanation” for why Matthew never married (just like she wanted to explain why Marilla never did), but to me it seemed like “he’s painfully shy and just never courted someone” is the explanation. I don’t think he needed to be “burned in love” to explain being single. Or he could just….not be interested in marriage. He never seemed to express any regrets about in the book, as Marilla does.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Miri ♪ Book Dragoness ♪ says:

    Ahhh I almost forgot about this book till your review showed up in my feed! I need to listen to the audiobook. I’m very glad to hear that the story mostly retained the spirit that made Anne of Green Gables so special. That’s what I was most worried about.


  4. Grab the Lapels says:

    I actually enjoy the backstory they give Matthew and Marilla in the Netflix adaptation. Both backstories are simplistic enough to give us an idea of who these people were before they became two old folks living together, but also don’t stray terrible from their personalities. Matthew gives the dressmaker a button as a young man, and Marilla flirts with John Blythe, but ends up staying home because her older brother is killed in war. I don’t like the idea of Marilla every being a “free spirit” sort of person. It sounds like the author wanted to convince us that Anne and Marilla are actually quite alike, but something happened to bottle Marilla’s spirit up.


  5. Katie Wilkins (@DoingDewey) says:

    I’m glad to hear this capture the spirit of the original for you, even if there were some details that didn’t quite work. I agree that following in the footsteps of an author this beloved is a difficult thing to do well!


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