In light of my Disney princess kick, I’ve had fairytales on the brain. I’m not entirely sure where this train of thought is going to take me over the next few days, but today it inspired me to pick up one of my favorite books from my childhood: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.
My own copy of this book is remarkably dog-eared, which is probably unsurprising when you consider how many times I’ve read it. It’s my go-to feel-good book–the one I read when things aren’t going all that well, and I just want to escape for a few hours. I have the 1997 paperback edition, which features a painting of a brunette girl with large eyes in a plain green dress, which is part of the reason I identified with the book so much as a girl: she looks like me. I was a sucker for that sort of thing as a child.
Ella Enchanted is, at its heart, a Cinderella story. Ella is the only daughter of her mother, who is low-level nobility, and her often absent merchant father. She was placed under a curse as a child, which forces her to obey any order given to her, regardless of who gives it or what it is. Throughout the story, she struggles against this curse, and becomes an unwilling player in the plots of those around her–from her vicious stepsister Hattie to rogue fairies, and everyone in between. Most of the story’s drama comes from her fight to overcome her curse and protect the people she loves, which comes to include the future King, Prince Charmont.
But Ella isn’t just a victim of circumstance. Despite the fact that she has to obey every order given to her, she is fiercely independent, and smart to boot. She finds all sorts of creative ways to “misunderstand” the orders she’s given, and she has an astounding knack for languages that saves her and the people she’s with on several occasions (I also love how she spends portions of the book analyzing the linguistics of all the languages she knows). Nothing is done for her, and she doesn’t expect it to be. She is the ultimate female protagonist, with none of the Suck so many seem to suffer from. Other authors would do well to take note.
Plus, the side characters are pretty great, too, as is the world-building. Everything that Ella experiences feels like only the tip of the iceburg, leaving you to wonder what goes on when she isn’t around to describe it for you. Minor characters like Mandy, Ella’s fairy godmother/cook, are just as well-rounded as Ella, but in different directions. Even the “evil” stepsisters and mother aren’t flat characters. Hattie’s hatred of Ella is explained, and Ella comes to understand and forgive her behavior. Additionally, Ella’s romance with Charmont starts right at the beginning of the book, which gives it plenty of time to develop fully, but it never becomes the central story. It is only a sub-plot on Ella’s journey to reclaiming her self.
I would highly recommend Ella Enchanted to anyone with young girls, or anyone who just likes fantasy. But do not watch the movie. The movie is terrible, and it completely ruined the story and the characters alike. Maybe some day I will rant about that, too, but such a rant would require me to watch the movie again, and that is something I never want to do.
“Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally.” –Ella Enchanted
P.S. Appropriately, I am going to see Cinderella with my mother at the 5th Ave in just a couple of days. I guess it is a fairy tale kind of week. I will likely report back on it up here.