Ella Enchanted is a modern re-imagining of the classic fairytale Cinderella. One of many, you might say. But first of all, fairytales are meant to be told over and over and develop with each re-telling; second of all this book is from 1997, which puts it squarely before the fairytale-craze of the last years; and third of all, Carson Levine’s take on the story really is original and innovative. The Young Adult genre often uses the same formula for its plots, but now and then you find a gem between the rocks and this is one of those.
“Ella Enchanted is now a major motion picture, featuring Anne Hathaway, star of The Princess Diaries!” says the back cover of my copy of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, in big yellow letters. I’ve seen it, it’s a funny and colourful film with an excellent cover of Queen’s ‘Somebody to love’, amongst other songs. It is, however, nothing like the book. And since they advertise the film on the book cover, they ought to promote the book in the film because it is definitely worth reading.
The story takes place in the fictional kingdom of Kyrria. A ditzy fairy, Lucinda, bestows a gift upon Ella of Frell when she is newly born. Thinking it will be a blessing, she grants Ella the gift of obedience: the girl has to do anything and everything she is commanded to do. Of course, everybody around the crib is horrified, because forced obedience is actually as cruel a curse as you can imagine. But Lucinda is adamant: she thinks she has done the child a service and won’t undo the curse. So Ella must learn to live with a dangerous secret. Anyone who knows about her curse could have absolute power over her. But the girl is headstrong and refuses to let the curse take over who she is. She tries to find loopholes in people’s commands, obeying the letter of the order but not the spirit.
From this premise the story develops. It follows the storyline of the original fairytale quite closely. The different events from the fairytale are like anchor points throughout the book. Between them, the novel develops. Ella’s loving mother and always her ally, Lady Eleanor, dies from an illness when Ella is nearly fifteen. Her father, a proud and distant businessman, soon gets entangled with a mean woman called Dame Olga. This woman, of course, comes with her own two insufferable daughters: Hattie and Olive. The three teenage girls are sent off to finishing school together. Hattie, the eldest and smartest of the two sisters, bullies Ella relentlessly and eventually figures out Ella’s secret. When Ella complains in her letters to her father about her stepsisters’ bullying behaviour, he ignores her.
When Hattie orders Ella to break off her friendship with Areida, a girl from the neighbouring country of Ayortha, she is heartbroken and decides that enough is enough. She runs away to find Lucinda and to ask her to reverse the spell. On her journey, she meets mythical creatures like elves, ogres and giants, but these are introduced naturally and fit into the reality of the book. On the whole, Carson Levine doesn’t spend much time padding the story by needlessly elaborating on details that are not necessary to the story. The descriptions are colourful and visual and just enough. The book is, consequently, easy to read.
You might be wondering if the prince appears in this version of the story. Ella is clearly a woman who can take care of herself. But the prince, Charmont (Char), has an important role to play. Luckily then, his character is well-rounded and actually charming without being utterly arrogant and annoying. Ella and Char know each other for a long time, become friends, help and support each other, before a romance develops. When it does, it happens while they are miles apart and can only write each other letters. There’s a problem, though: Ella realises that a prince can never marry a woman who could murder him in his bed if told to do so by some malicious individual. Their relationship seems impossible after that. I won’t reveal the ending, but we all know the fairytale: there’s a royal ball, there’s a pumpkin carriage, there’s a search when the stroke of midnight and a spiteful Hattie put a damper on the evening. But soot-covered Ella is our heroine, and she will not only save herself, but the entire kingdom.
I did wonder, as did many other readers, whether the curse couldn’t easily be broken by someone ordering Ella to ‘stop obeying’ or some such command. But thinking about it, I realised that this command would mean she could never again do anything anyone told her to do. Can you imagine the consequence if her prince unthinkingly told her ‘kiss me’? If, on the other hand, you would order Ella to only do whatever she wanted to do herself, she wouldn’t be able to function as a human being, seeing as we do have to put a check on our base desires, thoughts and actions. Any command to break the curse would become a new curse. Anyways, I don’t think the wording of the original curse would have allowed for such a simple solution.
While the frantic film is aimed at young children, I would recommend the book to children from about eleven years old and up. It is not complex, I just think it’s more fun when you’re old enough to swoon a little at characters falling in love and to laugh at blessings turning to horrible, ironic curses. Because Lucinda is still traveling around Kyrria, waving her wand at unsuspecting citizens like big magic is nothing. The best example of her presents is the wedding of Ella’s father, Sir Peter, and Dame Olga. Lucinda attends, the only one crying at a ceremony that has everything to do with money and influence, but nothing with love. She decides to give the ‘happy couple’ a gift: they will love each other forever. Two egocentric people, forever connected by an artificial love… they will never be able to get rid of each other. Now that’s dark humour.
Jane Austen Award for a romance build on respect and copious letter-writing
Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (New York, 1997)