Before this review, I am compelled to beg you:
PLEASE DON'T JUDGE THIS
BOOK BY ITS MOVIE!
(OR BY ITS NEW JACKET...)
I first read Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine more than ten years ago and fell in love with it instantly. This was a bit after the Harry Potter juggernaut got rolling and I remember telling people (and I still do) that, after Rowling's series, Ella Enchanted, winner of the Newbery Honor, is my favorite book. Of course, comparing the two is like apples and oranges, but both authors express great talent in creating whole new vividly drawn, magical universes complete with different creatures with their own languages and cultures. And, while I feel like Gail Carson Levine has yet to match the wonder of Ella Enchanted with any of her other books, of which there are several, this book remains a shining example of great writing in the young adult fantasy genre. Although I have tried to block any memories of the movie version of this book from my mind, I do seem to remember that it was turned into a silly, frolicksome romp that had nothing of the spirit of the book and added some overly mature teenage bits in an effort to attract a larger audience. Ever After with Drew Barrymore was more in the spirit of the book than the movie version of it was, although Hugh Dancy as Prince Char was a tad more attractive than Dougray Scott as Prince Henry in Ever After.
The basic plot of the book is taken from the Cinderella fairy tale in which a young girl loses her mother and is enslaved by her stepmother and horrible stepsisters. The wonderful twist that the author brings to this story is the role of fairy godmother. Present at the christening, Lucinda, a vain and thoughtless fairy gives the crying infant Ella the gift of obedience, which turns out to be a curse. Ella must do whatever she is told. Quickly realizing the danger in this, Ella's mother and her cook Mandy decide to keep this a secret. However, when Ella's mother dies and her secret is found out by her future stepsister as the girls travel to finishing school, Ella decides to go in search of Lucinda to see if she can take back or alter her "gift." But not before befriending Prince Charmont, who is everything a good prince should be and also a credible, likable character.
With the magical book of fairy tales given to her by Mandy, Ella can read the correspondence of others as well as glimpse bits of their lives. While the book doesn't help her track down Lucinda, it does help her to feel connected to those she loves and stay one step ahead of her scheming stepsisters and father who plans to marry her off to the richest, oldest Duke he can find. Ella has a gift for languages, which she exhibits when she rescues a gnome child from an ogre by speaking gnomish. While at school, she studies Ogrese, Kyrrian, Elfian and Ayorthian, the language of her new friend, Areida, all of which are spoken in the book. This serves her well on her journey, which includes being captured by Ogres, whom she enchants with her command of their language and attnding a giant's wedding where she finds Lucinda. Mystified as to why anyone would not want the gift of obedience, Lucinda tells Ella that she should be "happy to be blessed with such a lovely quality." This almost does Ella in when she is compelled to obey Lucinda's words, until Mandy commands her not to be happy about her gift. The story continues with twists and turns and a growing friendship between Ella and Prince Char that I could detail endlessly, but I want you to be surprised by the story, the resolution of which is very satisfying. Ella stays true to her intelligent, independent, brave nature and finds a way to save herself from her curse/gift.
Similar to Robin McKinley's Beauty, Ella Enchanted is an in depth retelling of a familiar fairy tale. Ella seems younger than Beauty, three years younger if I am correct, and her story is a bit more lighthearted. What struck me most when I first read this book, was what a determined, self-empowered character she is, even rescuing the prince and his retinue at one point. While the world of young adult literature has become populated with more and more strong girl characters since Ella stepped on the scene in 1997, I think she remains one of the most creative, enchanting characters in literature.
If your liked this book, I suggest:
The Castle Cornoa by Sharon Creech
A Barrel of Laughs: A Vale of Tears by Jule Feiffer
Beauty by Robin Mckinley
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald