Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Retold fairytales, in which the characters and plots of traditional stories are explored in more depth, or told from an unexpected point-of-view, are a dime a dozen these days. But one stands out from the rest, and that is Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, which takes the story of Cinderella and not only provides impetus for many of the nonsensical elements of the original tale, but builds a rich imaginary world around it and makes the titular character one of the best heroines to ever appear in YA novel.
If you secretly always thought Cinderella was a bit of a pushover, sitting and crying by the fireplace when she could have been raiding her stepsisters’ wardrobes and hitchhiking to the ball, then you’ll be pleased to find that Levine gives us a perfect acceptable reason as to why her Ella is so slavishly obedient to her step-family: she’s under a spell. When just a baby, an idiotic fairy called Lucinda blessed her with the “gift” of obedience, in which Ella is forced to obey every command she hears.
A wish or a request has no effect on her, but a direct order, no matter how terrible it is, must be obeyed. Any attempts at disregarding it results in frightening nausea and dizziness. Levine takes this conceit and heightens the dramatic effect to its full potency. Ella’s life is monopolized by her constant internal battle between obedience and defiance: “It was a tiresome game, but I had to play it or feel like a complete puppet.” Because she’s naturally willful, she makes an art out of finding loopholes in the commands she receives. When someone demands that she fetch almonds from the pantry for a cake, she responds by bringing back just two. When someone orders her to take off their smelly shoes, she counteracts by throwing them out the window directly afterwards. Although there are moments of comedy involved in her plight, Levine never shies away from the fact that Ella is under a terrible curse; such as the horror that comes with the command to: “be happy to be blessed with such a lovely quality.”
Ella nurses the dream of one day being free of the spell, but until then, we’re with her as she struggles with her self-control, hoping that one day she’ll either get Lucinda to remove the spell, or come across a command that’s too heinous to obey. But what command could possibly be terrible enough for her to withstand the pain and break the spell through sheer force of will?
Ella herself is a fantastic character, and tells her own story in first-person narrative (difficult to pull off without the narrator sounding too self-involved, but here it doesn’t falter for a second). Ella is not perfect by any means, but she’s intelligent and witty, gifted at languages, kind-hearted, and endearingly stubborn when it comes to dealing with her curse, clinging to her dignity even as she’s forced into doing the most embarrassing things. One general thing does get on my nerves though, and that’s the oft-repeated character trait among YA heroines: crippling clumsiness. Sure, we’re all klutzy at that age, but the way the authors of YA novels write teenage girls, you’d think they couldn’t perform the most basic physical tasks without skirting death itself. But where most YA fairytales/romances are dominated by the swooning damsel staring at the dreamy hero, Levine never looses sight of the fact that this story is all Ella’s, culminating in a vindication of free will and inner strength.
Like most fairytale heroines, Ella loses her mother; unlike most fairytale heroines, we the reader actually get a sense of the love between mother and daughter, and the pain that Ella feels when she loses her. Eleanor of Frell may only be around for one chapter, but in that time Levine makes us almost as sorry as Ella is to see her go. As the story goes on, the tale veers closer and closer to the familiar fairytale, and Levine finds amusing ways to insert the traditional Cinderella tropes, such as the glass slippers, the pumpkin carriage, and even the fact that Ella has small feet!
Olga, Hattie and Olive (the evil stepmother and stepsisters, respectively) are rather cartoonish villains, being gluttonous, avaricious, and idiotic. Furthermore, Hattie snores, has smelly feet, is overweight, and hides a secret that exposes her to further ridicule. In short, they are grotesque, and although a part of me wishes that there was more to their characters, the greater part doesn’t really care because it makes Ella’s victory over them all the sweeter. And Levine compensates for this ugly-side of womankind by adding the characters of Mandy (Ella’s fairy godmother) and Areida (a friend that she makes at school) as the more benevolent reflections of snotty Olga and vindictive Hattie.
There are some hilarious one-liners, and Levine is a wonderful humourist, very much in keeping with J.K. Rowling’s ability to dryly poke fun at the ridiculous. When Ella arrives at finishing school (where all the chamberpots look like decorative cabbages) she is told: “it’s never too late to start being finished.” When Hattie pens a letter to her mother concerning Ella’s disappearance, she writes: “I hope she has come to no harm and has not been eaten by ogres or captured by bandits or caught fire or fallen into bad company, as I so often imagine.” And my personal favourite:
“What a clever daughter I have.” Olga beamed at Hattie.
“As clever as she is beautiful,” I said.
They both began to answer me, and then stopped, confused.
“Hattie isn’t pretty,” said Olive.
The centerpiece of the story though, belongs to the love that blossoms between Prince Charmont (usually known as “Char”) and Ella. Basically, Char and Ella make up the best YA romance… ever. There, I said it. But it’s true. Whereas other authors-that-shall-remain-nameless rely on strangling their lovers with the red string (that is, trying to convince us that their characters are in love because the author says that they’re in love) Levine takes the time to build a relationship between Ella and Char that’s based on more than just physical attraction, and it’s all the more powerful for it. In the YA genre, in which love stories between a hero and heroine are about as deep as a paddling pool, these two are a godsend.
Char and Ella learn about each other before they fall in love. They acknowledge each other’s flaws as well as their strengths. They play silly games and share jokes. They converse via letters over an extended period of time, which include such reflective lines as this: “I trust you to see the good in me, but the bad I must make sure you don’t overlook.” They love the big things about each other, like their kindness and honesty, but also the silly little things, like each other’s freckles and a mutual enjoyment of sliding down banisters.
And because it is a love that is based on friendship, respect, compatibility and intelligence, it makes the heartbreak twice as painful, and the declaration twice as rewarding. Just think, two people actually becoming friends before they become lovers! Who’d have thought?!
The book was adapted into a rather awful movie not too long ago, which obliterated all the reasons why this book is so special, and replaced it with a story that relied too much on the popularity of Shrek (complete with a contemporary soundtrack, anachronistic elements and crude comedy) than the charm of Levine’s story. Avoid it if you can, and hope that in later years it’ll either be more faithfully adapted, or left well enough alone.
As you can see, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Ella Enchanted, though admittedly it may not appeal to the average boy-reader, being essentially a rather feminine coming-of-age tale in a fairytale kingdom full of fairies and elves. But for everyone else, this is a wonderful book, with a spritely, loveable lead, and a mature and healthy understanding of romantic relationships (and I’m pointing this out, because it’s unfortunately so very, very rare). If your eight-to-twelve year old daughter holds up Ella of Frell as her literary role-model, then you’ve got yourself an awesome kid.
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