7.31.2010

Ella Enchanted

There are some books from your childhood that you can re-read as an adult and nothing quite seems the same... and then there are books like Ella Enchanted, where it feels as though you've only set it down a few days before, all the details are still so clear. The same charm and intelligence of the heroine, the same frustrating situation of her curse, the same thought of "I know he's the prince, but couldn't Ella do just a little bit better?"

Ella Enchanted is Gail Carson Levine's empowered spin on the classic Cinderella story, though readers who don't know this might not figure that bit out until quite close to the end of the book. Rather than simply talking about some girl who's happy to let an evil stepfamily walk all over her for no reason, Levine makes the story her own and gives a great deal of background to the young woman with a fairy godmother who's destined to somehow wear glass sippers and ride in a pumpkin to a ball.

The basic premis is this: as a baby, Ella was "blessed" with a gift that really turned out to be a curse. A fairy (though not her fairly godmother, it turns out) gave her the gift of obedience, which translates into the fact that Ella has to do anything that she's commanded to do. She can hold out for a little bit, but her limbs strain to obey and her head begins to hurt until she yields to the command. Over the years, she's learned the loopholes and figured out ways to do as she's told without actually submitting to an order, but it still qualifies as the world's worst "blessing" in her book. With a loving mother and mother-figure in the family's cook, Ella manages for herself a bit... until her mother dies and her father (who wasn't ever in the running for world's best dad) sends her off to finishing school with two dreadful girls who are clearly destined to be her step-sisters as soon as their mother gets their hooks into Ella's father. Ella finds a friend at school -- only to be ordered to give her up -- and runs away in pursuit of the fairy who cursed her, hoping that she'll take back her "gift" so Ella can have her free will. In the course of this trip, she is nearly eaten by ogres, saves herself from their clutches (with just a little help from Char and his knights), and shows off her knack for learning languages before the story twists to give her even more stumbling blocks before what you know simply must be a happy ending.

Prior to being shipped off to school, Ella befriends the Prince (Char) and while the reader can clearly see that Char is becoming more and more smitten with his friend as they get a bit older, Ella remains unaware of his affections. When he ultimately confesses his feelings, though, she realizes that she's never before realized just how cursed she is, for she can be nothing but a danger to the prince if others manipulate her with commands. Char clearly has a good head on his shoulders and is not one of those gad-about princes, but even though he's steady and kind, one does find him to be just a touch dull. He can, at least, appreciate humor and their letters show that there's a deeper connection than a few storybook balls might provide. The only frustrating bit about the romance is that it all really does come down to Ella's love for Char that will be responsible for breaking the curse. One might prefer it to be more about her own self, but at least what breaks the curse is her desire for what's best for Char as opposed to an insistence on having him for herself.

Levine's twist on the Cinderella story takes a classic fairy tale and injects it with life and female empowerment. True, Ella's in a terribly awkward situation, but our determined and independent heroine never lacks for intelligence and wit while she seeks to end her predicament. Actually, every one of the female characters in the book is strong in her own way, from Ella's meek school friend that insists upon correcting any errors of belief about Ella to the evil stepsisters who focus on what they want for themselves (whether it's misguided or not). One wishes Mandy (the cook who turns out to be Ella's real fairy godmother, but who insists on only doing small magic) were inclined to take a few more risks for her goddaughter, but all turns out well, so it's hard to fault her.

If you're worried that your daughters might be getting the wrong messages about heroines in fairy tales and the all-consuming need to win a prince, you should certainly have them read Ella Enchanted, as it's a great gateway book to all kinds of other fairy-tale-based novels for girls where the heroines are a bit stronger than the stories would otherwise suggest. (If you need a movie counterpart, direct your girls to Ever After as opposed to the movie version of Ella, because while it might be fun to revitalize Queen's "Somebody to Love," the movie's way off-base on the book and the heroine's strength.) In the end, I still found Ella to be an enchanting read as an adult and would heartily recommend it to any young heroine in the making.

1 comment:

Linna (21 ♡ pages) said...

I absolutely loved this book when I was in middle school, and it's still just as charming today.

The movie version, however, was a bit horrifying for someone who had re-read the book dozens of times, and it never occurred to me how Ella's stepsisters were a strong example of character strength, as well.