30 June 2010

Book Review: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

  
The Enchanted April
Elizabeth Von Arnim

I remember seeing the trailer for the film adaptation of this book when it first came out in 1992. It looked right up my alley. A period film of the English in Italy, had echoes of "A Room With A View".  But for some reason over the last 18 years I never bothered to see it.  And then recently I came across a nice used copy of the NYRB edition and thought the time had come to give The Enchanted April a whirl.

The story begins with Lotty Wilkins having a miserable February day in rainy London. She notices an advertisement for an Italian house (castle) rental in the Times with the heading: "For Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine". She becomes obsessed with the idea of spending a sunny April in Italy and manages to convince Rose, a woman from her club and church, whom she hardly knows, to split the cost of the rental. To save money the two decide to advertise for others to share the castle and end up with Mrs. Fisher a older widow who had a childhood filled with Ruskin and Carlyle and Robert Browning (literally, her father knew all these "great men") and just wants to spend her time at the castle being left alone to "remember" better times. And with Lady Caroline Dester a 28-year old beauty who also wants nothing more than to be left alone.

So off they go to Italy where indeed the sun is shining and everything is more beautiful then they had imagined. It isn't long before Lotty's infectious enthusiasm melts Rose's defenses and while it takes a little longer, eventually does the same for Lady Caroline and Mrs. Fisher. She credits the house and Italy with transformative powers, but it is clear that Lotty has just as much to do with the transformations as the house.

Throughout the story there are wonderful moments of light humor. Not roll on the floor kind of humor but genuinely funny moments that make one chuckle in delight. Perhaps my favorite instance is the struggle between Rose and Mrs. Fisher for dominance of the over the tea pot and who is serving whom. Over the course of the book each of the women are rescued from their personal despair by letting go of their ingrained old notions of themselves and their relationships and embracing a new attitude.

I really enjoyed reading this charming book, the same can't be said for the film, which I watched almost immediately after finishing the novel. There was some good casting--Miranda Richardson as Rose and Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fisher--but the other two weren't so great. The actor portraying Lotty way overplayed her character's quirkiness. I think given the reserve of the other characters her words alone would have been shocking, she didn't need to make everything sound like an over excited twelve year old. And the actor who played Lady Caroline, well, she had the wrong color hair and wasn't the knock down beauty the book promised. But even these miscastings could have been overlooked if they hadn't taken a few liberties with the plot that in my opinion dumbed down the story in a way that seemed unnecessary. And they used way too many fake flowers to make the gardens seem over the top beautiful. Merchant-Ivory never would have made that mistake.

So, a hearty "yes" to the book, and a hearty "maybe if you are bored" to the film.

11 comments:

  1. Absolutely to your last sentence. The book is such a wonderful read - really evocative of place and really uplifting for the winter months.

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  2. Tony & I watched the movie a few months ago and I was really disappointed. To me the film was kind of insipid and muddled; I didn't think it was strong at all.

    At that time I didn't realize that the film was based on a book. Yours is the second post I've read that suggests that book is a worthwhile read, so perhaps I'll be lucky enough to find a copy!

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  3. always the way it is when you read the book first. i'd never read it so i love the movie and even josie lawrence who played lotty. and of course alfred molina! love the art direction AND polly walker as miss dester.

    whether movie or book, definitely a "tonic" in the dark wet days of winter. happily, we don't have to worry about that right now!

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  4. I loved the book. The move was so-so. I read von Arnim's Elizabeth and Her German Garden earlier this year and discovered the a similiar light cheerfulness but this time tempered by a wicked sense of humor.

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  5. Verity: Even in the heat and sun it is nice to be transported to Italy in the spring.

    Steph: I think muddled is a good word for it. With a few exceptions it is pretty faithful to the book, but it somehow missing the clarity and humor of hte book.

    Mlle: Interesting how you liked the things I didn't...

    Stefanie: Now that I have read this one, I am definitely interested in reading more by the author.

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  6. I have seen the film but not read the book which is usually a mistake and so it was in this case - the film put me off a bit but maybe I should reconsider reading!

    thanks for sharing

    Hannah

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  7. Oh, the book is so lovely! I didn't know there was a film, but now I'm aware to steer clear of it.

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  8. I love this book and have read it a few times--it's my 'in need of some cheer' sort of book that I like to pick up when winter seems to be dragging on forever. I could use (and do appreciate) some sunshine and wistaria!

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  9. I concur about the film: it is a diverting means to pass the time but doesn't do the book justice. At the time I thought Josie Lawrence's humour carried the character of Lotty off well (even though I was aghast to begin with at the casting; her humour can be quite foul) but with hindsight I agree that she was a bit too giddy and Lotty came off as an idiot (that which Mrs. Fisher originally thought her to be).

    The Enchanted April is a book I shall revisit often; I thought it evoked Italy in spring wonderfully well.

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  10. Hannah: Hopefully the film won't ruin the book for you. But I can understand how it could. The film Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day has definitely ruined the book for me. I have no interest, in fact am even somewhat hostile to the book because I didn't like the film.

    Jeane: Yeah, save your money on this one.

    Danielle: In the film they spelled wisteria the way we spell it today, despite the fact that the book and the famous ad in the Times spelled it wistaria.

    Book Snob: I think drag is the right word.

    Claire: I didn't know anything about Josie Lawrence so I had no expectations related to that.

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  11. Oh, I'm so sad to see so many people didn't like the film. I've never read the book, although I want to, but the film is a favorite of mine. I think it's mostly the lushness and the happy spirit behind it. It just makes me feel good to watch it. If I'd read the book and had that to compare it to, I suppose I might feel differently, but as it is, Enchanted April is one of my comfort films.

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