by Elizabeth Von Arnim
New York Review of Books, 2007
(originally published 1922)
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!