Friday, August 7, 2009

The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April
by Elizabeth Von Arnim
New York Review of Books, 2007
(originally published 1922)
247 pages

Molly's Summer Vacation Reading Challenge is in its final days, but I am still lingering over my first review! How can I convey what a delightful story this is?

It all begins with this ad in the newspaper:

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.
Small mediaevial Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

Mrs. Wilkins spots it first. "She was the kind of person who is not noticed at parties. Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible; her face was non-arresting; her conversation was reluctant; she was shy. And if one's clothes and face and conversation are all negligible, thought Mrs. Wilkins, who recognised her disabilities, what, at parties, is there left of one?" (page 5)

Across the room at the club, she spies Mrs. Arbuthnot looking dreamily at the same ad. Mrs. Wilkins has noticed this woman at church "marshalling the children of the poor into pews", but the two have never spoken. Mrs. Arbuthnot's face, as usual, "was the face of a patient and disappointed Madonna."

Mrs Arbuthnot has, indeed, been disappointed in life. She "didn't dare think of him [her husband] as he used to be...Her child had died; she had nothing, nobody of her own to lavish herself on. The poor became her children, and God the object of her love. What could be happier than such a life, she sometimes asked herself; but her face, particularly her eyes, continued sad." (page 26)

Mrs. Wilkins decides to approach Mrs. Arbuthnot. After much discussion, the two agree to pool their resources and pursue the dream. They advertise for additional companions to share expenses. With just two responses, their choice is made. First is the elderly Mrs. Fisher, who lives primarily in the past, and then Lady Caroline (aka Scrap), a beautiful socialite trying to escape demands which arise from being wealthy, young, and single. All four women, each in her own way, seek some sort of solitude and healing.

Upon arriving at the castle, the women jockey for position - the best bedrooms, sitting rooms, seat at the dinner table, private outdoor space, etc. Personalities clash and pettiness abounds. But soon, Italy begins to work her magic. Mrs. Wilkins notices it immediately:

"All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword." (page 55)

The reader, again and again, is treated to the sights, sounds, and smells of the Italian countryside.

"And meanwhile the beautiful golden days were dropping gently from the second week one by one, equal in beauty with those of the first, and the scent of beanfields in flower on the hillside behind the village came across to San Salvatore whenever the air moved. In the garden that second week the poet's eyed narcissus disappeared out of the long grass at the edge of the zigzag path, and the wild gladiolus, slender and rose-coloured, came in their stead, white pinks bloomed in the borders, filling the whole place with their smoky-sweet smell, and a bush nobody had noticed burst into glory and fragrance, and it was a purple lilac bush." (page 185)

Barriers and defenses begin to fade, and each woman is awakened to new thoughts and attitudes, that can only lead to a happier existence. Italy holds some surprises for each of them.

After reading The Enchanted April, I felt like I'd experienced a little bit of Italy's magic, too. In fact, this trip was so enjoyable, I decided to stay in Italy for the entire challenge. If you long for a trip to Italy, but it's not in your budget at the moment, this book may be the next best thing. I highly recommend The Enchanted April!

21 comments:

  1. When you first mentioned you were reading this book, I thought of my mom and how much she loves this movie. Based on your review I think I will be giving her a copy of the book. Enjoy the rest of your time in Italy:)

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  2. I loved how you used passages from the books and then gave us your feelings on that part...sounds like a delightful vacation...oh Italy, how I would love to visit there in real life!! I'll be on the lookout for this book!! Lovely review!

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  3. I read this book about 18 years ago and should probably revisit it. During the middle of winter might be a nice time to read about sunny Italy and lovely gardens. Ciao!

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  4. I've never read this book but it sounds lovely. I will have to buy a copy, like Darlene I think this would be a great winter day read.
    ..I just saw that it is available for free download at Project Gutenberg. I don't have a reader but just fyi for those who do.

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  5. I read this in April and found it enchanting! I am currently in the middle of watching the film adaptation so that I can finally review it. Does it make you want to read any more Elizabeth Von Arnim? I immediately bought some of her other books but haven't read them yet.

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  6. You did a lovely job of conveying the feel of this charming book. Loved the movie also. So where else in Italy will you go? I'm up for the vicarious thrill.

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  7. Btw, you are a winner in my Julie and Julia giveaway. Email me your mailing address?

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  8. Really well done review. I've always wanted to go to Italy...

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  9. Looks like a great read! Thanks for your review.

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  10. I love your review. This book has been on my tbr shelf for a very long time and now I REALLY want to read it! Oh dear-too many books in line a head of it though. ;)
    *smiles*
    Kim

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  11. So pleased you liked it. I thought and think it is a wonderful book. Thanks for visiting my blog, my next book will probably be a Jean Plaidy for the J.P. bookclub.

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  12. Oh, I'm looking forward to this more than ever now! I've actually been craving a trip, but cannot take one at the moment...this will be the next best thing :P

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  13. I love this book so much. If you get the chance, do see the TV version that was made. It changes the stry a little but really keeps the atmosphere.

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  14. I am so looking forward to reading this as part of my VMC challenge...must get a copy soon!

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  15. Book Psmith - If your mother liked the movie, I'm sure she'd like the book, too. My copy went home with my mother today!

    Staci - There were so many wonderful passages in this book! I would love to go to Italy...I'm starting to save now.

    Darlene - This would be perfect in the dead of winter, too. I'm sure it would add brightness and warmth to any cold, dreary day.

    Icedream - Reading this book is like taking a mini vacation...good at any time of year. Thanks for mentioning Project Gutenberg.

    Paperback Reader - I have Elizabeth and Her German Garden here, and would love to find some of her other books, too. The movie has come from Netflix, but I haven't had a chance to watch it yet.

    Frances - Thank you. I'm looking forward to the movie now, too. Venice will be the next stop on my virtual vacation...stay tuned. Hurray for Julie and Julia! I emailed you my address.

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  16. Beth F - Thank you. Now I really want to go to Italy...hopefully within the next couple of years.

    Hmsgofita - It was an excellent read - just what I needed for summer!

    Kim- Thank you so much! When you do get to this book, you're in for a treat.

    Zetor - Thank you again for your review of this book many months ago. It was the first I'd heard of it. Enjoy your next Jean Plaidy!

    Table Talk - I just got the video from Netflix and am looking forward to watching it sometime this week. So glad they got the atmosphere right!

    Nymeth- You should definitely read this book soon. It's the next best thing to a real vacation!

    Verity - I'll look forward to hearing what you think of it!

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  17. Excellent review! I have a fondness for NYRB titles, which are quality contemporary classics that are often overlooked. The setting--Italy by the Mediteraanean, makes it even more appealing. The book would quench my longing for Italy until I save up to go. :)

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  18. Matt - This was the first NYRB title I've read, but I'll surely keep an eye out for more. I really want to visit Italy...am hoping to plan a trip in the next year or two.

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  19. A great movie and an AMAZING book! I'm sighing blissfully at the thought of it. I need to watch the movie again.

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  20. A movie? I have to investigate this one. First I want to read the book. It looks like a great to visit Italy.

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  21. Karenlibrarian - The movie was gorgeous, but I don't think I would have enjoyed it as much without reading the book first. It's time to read/watch it again!

    Margot - Definitely read the book first... you'll feel like you've been on a trip to Italy!

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