While we were getting divorced, I once pressed my ex-husband to search his memory for aspects of my character worthy of admiration, and with much thought and scratching of chin, he managed to dredge up one grudging thing he still liked about me: how I bring flowers into the house, as a quotidian habit, year-round. This, my apparent only redeeming quality, can be credited to “Anne of Green Gables.”
“Anne of Green Gables” is the book that influenced me most in my life — not Tolstoy (who would probably be surprised to come in second behind Lucy Maud Montgomery!) or Nabokov or Bruce Chatwin. No, it was the story of the red-headed orphan with the hot temper and overactive imagination that exerted the most formative pressure on my young brain. I read the whole series repeatedly when I was 12.
Anne Shirley, the heroine of the novels — the first volume of which was published in 1908 — had freckles, like me, and wore her hair in a pair of braids, as I did. It was one of the most painful letdowns of my childhood, though, that my braids, unlike Anne’s, were not red: I inherited the redhead’s splotchy-white skin — and tendency to react badly to medicine and anesthesia — but not the hair color, despite having flaming redheads on both sides of my family tree.
“Anne of Green Gables” taught me to have unreasonable expectations of enduring love. It was a romance, and for a couple of years I looked everywhere, under each bundle of mistletoe and on every park bench, for a boy with chestnut curls, like Anne’s Gilbert Blythe. It inspired me to use antiquated language: Instead of just saying “yes” or “sure” in seventh grade, I would gaze dreamily out the classroom window and say, “I suppose.”
But the books’ true theme wasn’t romance, it was not fitting in — having the courage of your convictions. (Which I’ve always had, and I do think this should have rated on my ex-husband’s list.) And also . . . flowers! Trees in bud! Blossoms! The bloom of a rural landscape in April and May. It was a romance with the natural world.
Anne was the sort of girl who could rhapsodize for 10 minutes about the white petals falling during a carriage ride down a lane flanked by apple blossoms. So was I: I read “Anne” and began to watch for snowdrops in February, and to press violets between the pages of the encyclopedia.
Prince Edward Island, in the Canadian Maritimes, was the setting for the “Anne” series, and it remains the place of my dreams: an uncrowded, emerald isle where potato fields roll down to undulating white dunes and churning waves. When I got married, I misfired and ended up just shy of P.E.I., living in rural Nova Scotia, but that was a landscape of cold evergreens bound by a hard, rocky shore, not an agrarian paradise. Bother! as Anne might say.
Still, I’ve been to P.E.I. a few times on vacation, and I can attest that — unlike the rest of the romantic promises of “Anne” — its reality matches fantasy. It is the ideal landscape. It’s like Sagaponack in 1959. The water is warm for swimming; much warmer than, say, Maine’s seaside. There are tea rooms everywhere, where you can sip oolong and eat tiny sandwiches. People say P.E.I. is touristy, and that’s true in a 1959 sense: There are go-kart tracks in the tourist hub near Cavendish, and buses carrying pensioners to lobster suppers, and the guesthouses are frequented by Japanese women of all ages who have come to pursue their own Green Gables dreams. But compared to the East End of Long Island, there is no one there.
I’m not quite sure why I’m revealing this in print, so that others get the idea to invest in waterfront P.E.I. property — a stone’s throw from a wharf selling salty, fresh Malpeque oysters — but I am spending month nine of the pandemic daydreaming over the property listings on the north shore, particularly in the stretch between French River and Park Corner.
My sister-in-law says that every local family in the Hamptons has what she calls the “I f-ed up house,” which is a house you once airily considered buying — 15 years ago, 25 years ago, when real estate was cheap, in that ever-renewed moment “right before prices went crazy” — but, because it felt just out of reach, you never did, and each time as you drive past it, you get a sharp pang and mutter, “I f-ed up.”
I have several “I f-ed up” houses on Prince Edward Island.
Not that I ever had a spare $60,000 or $150,00 sitting in my pocket with which to snap one up.
But I do have a Plan B. Having never been lucky enough to meet my own tousle-haired Gilbert Blythe, I am about to read a 2005 self-help book that someone at The Star office dropped on my desk, titled “The Ultimate Guide to High Net Worth Dating.” It contains instructions for nabbing a rich spouse and cites specific South Fork clubs, restaurants, and bars where — the authors claim — a lonely multimillionaire might be found pining away. Judging by the title’s reckless way with hyphenation, “The Ultimate Guide to High Net Worth Dating” is probably not an example of fine literature on par with “Anne of Green Gables,” but it will be the subject of next week’s column.