The red-headed heroine has a lot to teach when it comes to love.

L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley first came into my life when I was a little girl: the 1985 VHS tapes of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea were an annual must-watch in my house. In my college years, I finally encountered the books, and though there are some stark differences between the movies and the books, what I’ve always appreciated about both versions of Anne’s story is their relatability. As a child, I related to Anne personally—her dramatics and extreme sensitivity were characteristics I also possessed.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate another facet of Anne—her approach to romantic relationships. Montgomery’s masterful story is honest about the often-difficult realities that come with growing up and falling in love. Below are a few lessons I’ve learned from Anne Shirley about how to navigate romance. (Note: if you haven’t read the books, or if you’re currently in the midst of Anne’s adventures, save this article for later so you don’t spoil any surprises!)

Redefining relationships can be painful.

Anne is much slower to love Gilbert Blythe—her one true love—than he is to love her. At first, she feels most comfortable with Gilbert as a friend. Though a “romantic” in her love for poetry and nature, and a dreamer about love stories and imaginary romantic gestures, Anne must grapple with how romance plays out in reality. Used to Gilbert as “the boy-comrade of Avonlea days,” Anne initially struggles when he tries to redefine their relationship along romantic lines. In the middle of Anne of the Island, the story of Anne’s college years, Anne refuses Gilbert’s first proposal.

‘Oh, don’t say it,’ cried Anne, pleadingly. ‘Don’t—please, Gilbert.’

‘I must. Things can’t go on like this any longer. Anne, I love you. . . . I can’t tell you how much. Will you promise me that some day you’ll be my wife?’

‘I—I can’t,’ said Anne miserably. ‘Oh, Gilbert—you—you’ve spoiled everything.’

‘Don’t you care for me at all?’ Gilbert asked after a very dreadful pause. . . .‘Not—not in that way. I do care a great deal for you as a friend. But I don’t love you, Gilbert.’

‘But can’t you give me some hope that you will—yet?’

‘No I can’t,’ exclaimed Anne desperately. ‘I never, never can love you—in that way—Gilbert. You must never speak of this to me again.’

From Anne’s perspective, Gilbert has spoiled the delicate balance of their friendship. Anne begs Gilbert not to propose because in doing so he makes friendship impossible between them—they can never go back to the way things were.

Here, Anne’s experience is strikingly similar to my experience as a modern woman. The fear of losing a friend to romance lurks within many male-female friendships, and the withdrawal of Gilbert’s friendship wounds Anne deeply: “She felt as if something incalculably precious had gone out of her life.” It is clear that at this stage in Anne’s life, a friend is more cherished than a potential spouse, something I think many women can relate to at one time or another. Anne’s experience is a reminder that it’s okay to feel the shift in some of our friendships as a loss.

The ideal is not always the best match. 

In the midst of her college years, Anne meets her “prince charming,” Royal Gardner, one stormy evening when he offers her the shelter of his umbrella. In him, Anne finds her ideal. Like Anne, he is a romantic at heart. He sends her roses and gives her poetic compliments. Their relationship is one that feels like “love at first sight.” But for Anne there’s always the nagging question of Gilbert. To her own confusion, when Anne finds out that Gilbert has been spending time with another woman, she feels jealous.

For Anne, the revelation that she cannot marry Roy does not come until he proposes. Montgomery describes Anne’s newfound perspective in this way: “She found herself trembling, as if reeling back from a precipice. To her came one of those blinding moments when we realize, as by a blinding flash of illumination, more than all our previous years have taught us.” This experience of refusing the ideal man opens Anne to accept the love of Gilbert, whom she now recognizes as the man she has come to love.

A friend recently shared some wisdom with me: our ideal man might not be the person we’re supposed to be with. In Anne’s case, the tall, dark, and handsome man who sweeps her off her feet is not the person she’s meant to marry. This applies to other aspects of life as well. There may be a job, for example, that seems to be a great fit for our particular talents and interests. But then comes the revelation—either we don’t get the job, or we get the job and it isn’t as satisfying as we thought. In the realm of relationships, Anne’s experience serves as a reminder that the person who seems so perfect for us may not be the one who challenges us to grow into our best selves. Therefore, widening our social circles to include those we might not typically consider as a friend or romantic partner might just surprise us.

Love may grow faster in some people than in others. 

In the midst of Anne of the Island, Anne’s best friend, Diana, gets married, and Anne’s feelings are a mixture of delight and disappointment. Diana will no longer be as close to Anne as she is to her husband. As Diana’s wedding day approaches, Anne laments, “how horrible it is that people have to grow up—and marry—and change!” Though Anne feels this way, she cannot escape the proposals that are made to her by Billy Andrews, Charlie Sloane, Gilbert, and Roy. Most of these proposals leave her perplexed. She’d rather life go on as it was.

Though Anne ultimately accepts Gilbert’s second proposal, it is clear that she has found out more about herself in the interlude. L.M. Montgomery’s pacing of Anne’s romantic life lends a touch of reality to relationships, especially for those of us who approach relationships with anxiety. Though Gilbert confesses, “I’ve loved you ever since that day you broke your slate over my head in school” (which occurred when Anne was twelve!), it’s taken Anne past the end of college to find out that she feels the same way. This story arc is true to life in a way that many modern depictions of romance are not—we’re not always on the same page with those whom we love or who love us. And if Anne has taught me anything, it’s that this is okay. Since we’re all different people working through different challenges and growing in different ways, there’s bound to be a difference between the feelings two people have for each other. Though modern films and books tend to show relationships growing at a rapid rate, it is comforting to know that many—and perhaps most—relationships don’t work that way. Anne’s story is an encouragement to let love unfold at its own pace.

Anne reminds me of the truth that relationships are messy. Though she is an idealist who can often be found “building a castle in the air,” she also faces the pain—sometimes downright agony—of real romance. Love is a risk, and Anne is able to take that risk freely, to grow and unfold her personality over the course of three books before she accepts a proposal of marriage. By not sticking to the head-over-heels romance narratives that Anne loves reading about, Montgomery reveals the transition of mind and heart that makes a deep relationship possible. For me, the result is a richer story, and one still quite resonant in modern relationships.