At sixteen and a half, Anne Shirley has finished her own schooling at Queen's Academy, and is preparing to return to Avonlea school, this time as its teacher. Though much changed from the talkative eleven-year-old adopted by Matthew and Marilla, Anne is still full of dreams and ideals, and always on the lookout for "kindred spirits." There are several newcomers to Avonlea, from the prosaic, grouchy Mr Harrison who moves in next door with his parrot, to poetic Paul Irving, kindred spirit and Anne's favourite pupil - if teachers had favourites, which of course they don't. And Marilla, who a few years ago no one would have foreseen raising one child, has taken in two more, six-year-old twins Davy and Dora Keith. As reflected in the title, the setting of the story spreads from the grounds of Green Gables, the school and surrounding woodland, to the whole village, and we get to know more of its inhabitants. As well as the next generation of Avonlea schoolchildren, we get to see more of the elder residents of the village when Anne, Gilbert and some of their other friends set up the Village Improvement Society, and through this we get to better know assorted friends-and-relations: Andrewses, Sloanes, Pyes and more. I've read this book more times than I can remember, and still can't work out who's who in Avonlea, but it's clear that Mrs Montgomery knew them all.
While just as episodic as Green Gables, the stories told in Avonlea are slightly more grown-up in theme and perhaps overall a little more sedate. Anne at sixteen to eighteen years of age seems a good deal older than I am at twenty five! Yet she is not yet cured of landing herself in embarrassing situations, such as falling through the roof of a neighbour's duck-house, and smothering her nose in red dye instead of freckle lotion before a surprise visit from a distinguished authoress. More childish amusement comes from the Keith twins, or rather Davy who always "wants to know" - Dora might as well be a porcelain doll for all the personality she is given. Paul Irving, too, is clearly intended to be a kindred spirit, though I find him a rather soppy character for a ten-year-old boy, despite Anne's and the author's protests that he is as manly as all the other boys in his class. Clearly Paul is supposed to be a reflection of Anne, with his make-believe and quirky little thoughts, but I couldn't believe in him. To me he seemed like a prototype of Walter Blythe from the later books, but Walter is more fleshed-out and his struggles make him come alive. Paul's difficulty in eating a whole dish of porridge doesn't quite work as a character flaw.
Still, Paul's presence in Avonlea brings about the last section of the novel, where it stops being so anecdotal and has an ongoing story. Anne befriends a charming old maid named Miss Lavendar Lewis, who lives alone in a quaint, fairy-like house with a young maid who she calls Charlotta the Fourth. Miss Lavendar seems to epitomise all that a child would think good about being grown-up and independent: having the freedom to do what you want, when you want, stay up all night and eat nothing but cake if you so desire! But Miss Lavendar has a history of romance with Paul Irving's father - who is now a widower. In the Anne books there are a lot of stories where Anne plays matchmaker or meddles in other people's relationships for better or worse, and in most cases I find these stories leave me cold. But the romance of Miss Lavendar and Stephen Irving is the first and the best, as we've spent plenty of time getting to know and love these characters and to wish them happiness. And although Anne is oblivious, or as good as, there are hints and suggestions of romance in her own not-too-distant future.