Monday, September 12, 2011
Review: The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
The Blue Castle
By: L.M. Montgomery
Publisher: Bantam Books
About the book:
At twenty-nine Valancy had never been in love, and ite seemed romance had passed her by. Living with her overbearing mother and meddlesom aunt, she found her only consolations in the "forbidden" books of John Foster and her daydreams of the Blue Castle. Then a letter arrives from Dr. Trent -- and Valancy decided to throw caution to the winds. For the first time in her life Valancy did and said exactly what she wanted. Soon she discovered a surprising new world, full of love and adventures far beyond her most secret dreams.
For almost twenty-nine years, Valancy Stirling has lived a drab, colorless existence, at the mercy of her controlling mother and extended family that view her as little more than the punch line to a sad joke. Valancy, you see, is an utter failure (or so she's been conditioned to believe) -- a disappointment to her family, unloved and unwanted by any man, doomed to a lifetime's drudgery as an old maid at the beck-and-call of relatives that view themselves as her betters. Valancy is resigned to her fate, but not quite as cowed as her family might believe -- for she takes refuge in her imaginary Blue Castle, a gloriously constructed fantasy escape where her wildest hopes and dreams come true. When she is handed a diagnosis of terminal heart disease, with only a year to live, Valancy determines she won't die before she's really lived. Without further ado Valancy embarks on a journey of self-discovery that shocks her family, delights her sensibilities, and transforms her very countenance, until the Stirling family's "old maid" transforms beyond recognition, into the woman she was always meant to be.
I came to The Blue Castle after a veritable lifetime of appreciating Montgomery's Anne, Emily, and Pat books, but not having revisited even those old friends for several years. Here Montgomery exchanges the youthful tone of her Anne novels for something decidedly more adult but no less charming. Valancy's story is, I'm convinced, nothing less than the divinest of fairy tales for women, like a precious letter from a dear friend who knows precisely, exactly the cost society tries to demand from women in the name of "normalcy" and conformity and dares you to dream something different. Valancy's family are all colored in the best fairy-tale "villain" category -- rigid, unbending, self-centered and humorless -- when one considers Valancy's life opposite such a wall of unyielding expectation, her hopelessly squashed individuality is easy to comprehend.
But that is just part of the genius of this novel. Because when it would be easy -- even understandable -- for Valancy to concede defeat, she perseveres. Though The Blue Castle was first published in 1926, its themes are still gloriously, timelessly relevant, applicable to any woman who has ever struggled with identity, loneliness, self-image and doubt. With Valancy, perhaps in many respects Montgomery's most mature, grounded heroine (vivid imagination included, of course!), she reveals a keen understanding and sympathy for what makes women tick, the hurts and fears we hold within the deepest, most secret part of ourselves that threaten to forever paralyze us -- if we allow it. This is just part of the "magic" of the book -- much like Valancy longs to be real and truly known and accepted for who she is, if one allows it Montgomery's prose strips away the veneer society tells women we must wear in order to be accepted (albeit miserable) and wraps the reader in the comforting reassurance that who we are is who we are truly meant to be.
Given my life-long history with Montgomery's work, I cannot fathom how I never dipped into the pages of The Blue Castle before now -- except to say that the delay was perhaps providential, because I'm not sure that I would have fully appreciated Valancy and Barney's story before now. I'm not sure I have the words to fully express the absolute, undiluted beauty and power of Valancy's romance. Never has so much been said with so few words, has so much sensuous emotion and passion been wrapped up in a love story of such blinding, overwhelming purity. Barney Snaith is a romantic hero for the ages. *swoon* This was a timely read, an experience I'll treasure, because no matter how many times I revisit Valancy and Barney and their Blue Castle, the powerful impact of this first visit will remain forever etched on my heart.