At twenty-nine Valancy had never been in love, and it seemed romance had passed her by. Living with her overbearing mother and meddlesome aunt, she found her only consolations in the ” forbidden” books of John Foster and her daydreams of the Blue Castle. Then a letter arrived 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.
It is remarkable that this book perfectly follows so many long-established Hollywood romantic comedy conventions, and yet it avoids cliché, surprising and delighting the reader despite its tired plot.
The Blue Castle is built on several overused tropes. Valancy, the homely protagonist who has been living as an old maid since girlhood, discovers that she will die within a year. And so the book begins with one of those well-known carpe diem sequences where a dying character gives her finger to the world and learns, too late, how to live life to the fullest, normally by swimming with dolphins or going skydiving, and of course, by falling in true real deep love for the first time ever. Yet here, Montgomery’s use of this trope does not irritate, mostly because despite Valancy’s profound change in attitude, she remains the same person. Valancy accepts her morbid news and uses it as a way to discover what she has wanted and forbidden herself from having for 29 years. She doesn’t create a massive bucket list and cross off items daily—she simply learns to say yes to what she wants and no to what she doesn’t want.
Another romantic comedy trope: the ridiculous family. Valancy is part of the Stirling family, a bourgeois Canadian clan that reigns in small town Ontario but considers itself to be equal to the royal family at Versailles. There are around ten relatives that incessantly insult, pity, and, worst, simply ignore Valancy, and each is wonderfully sketched. One of the novel’s most fantastic scenes takes place at a family dinner soon after Valancy’s diagnosis. She finally tells each family member exactly what she thinks of them, and each relative melts into a babbling state, unable to recognize the newly liberated niece/daughter/granddaughter/cousin who sees through them and their antics.
The final romantic trope is also one of my most hated. In The Blue Castle we have a case of he-loves-her-but-shhh-only-she-doesn’t-know-it syndrome. Because of the relationship’s unique circumstances, I cannot reject this trope as I normally do. It seems believable that a girl who has been told for decades that she is ugly and unloveable would struggle to accept that she is indeed loved. And without this trope, we wouldn’t get to read a wonderful scene where the lovers finally acknowledge and confess the true depth of their love.
The Blue Castle is trite, to be sure, but it’s trite in such an utterly charming way that I can’t bring myself to fault it. It certainly helps that L.M. Montgomery is a wonderful writer with an incredible capacity to describe the beauty of the Canadian wilderness. Like all of Montgomery’s work, this is a book that reminds you how amazing it is to be alive, to be able to enjoy the world with friends by your side. There may be clichés and a serious case of deus ex machina, but no matter, you’ll be too grateful that you can lie in the grass, gaze at the stars, hear the songs of the birds, and fall in love at any moment to even care.