Monday, April 6, 2020
'The Enchanted April' by Elizabeth von Arnim
A recipe for happiness: four women, one medieval Italian castle, plenty of wisteria, and solitude as needed.
The women at the center of The Enchanted April are alike only in their dissatisfaction with their everyday lives. They find each other—and the castle of their dreams—through a classified ad in a London newspaper one rainy February afternoon. The ladies expect a pleasant holiday, but they don’t anticipate that the month they spend in Portofino will reintroduce them to their true natures and reacquaint them with joy. Now, if the same transformation can be worked on their husbands and lovers, the enchantment will be complete.
The Enchanted April was a best-seller in both England and the United States, where it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and set off a craze for tourism to Portofino. More recently, the novel has been the inspiration for a major film and a Broadway play.
Here's a runaway bestseller from 1922 to highlight in the month of April, for obvious reasons. It'll also do nicely for my Classic by a Woman category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. It's a pretty good choice for this crazy year of strict Covid-19 measures, since these four ladies have chosen to do a bit of self-isolation together. But whew, what a story. Love is so thick in the air, it's almost suffocating.
Four ladies who are virtual strangers decide to each chip in part of their savings to rent San Salvatore, a medieval villa in Italy, for the month of April. All four are suffering from burn-out, adrenal exhaustion and disillusionment with their ho-hum lives in London.
Lotty Wilkins is a mousy little tryhard who suspects she keeps disappointing her solicitor hubby Mellersh. During the story, she taps into a dormant prophetic power that transforms her. Pious Rose Arbuthnot is ashamed that her husband Frederick, a raunchy memoirist, is earning money on sin and sensationism. She aims to acquire happiness through good works and self-denial, but it's exhausting her!
Mrs Fisher is a gruff and overbearing elderly widow living in the grand old past. Her father was a great host, and she's forever name-dropping dead celebs from her childhood into conversations. And Lady Caroline Dester is a stunning beauty who suffers the misfortune of being overly admired wherever she goes. She's all peopled out and just wants to recharge in peace and quiet without empty small talk and silly jokes.
The setting, which sounds like a Mediterranean version of a Thomas Kinkade painting, turns out to be quietly restorative, sanding down their rough edges and coaxing out their inner goodness. It even acts as a magnet for males, including the two irritating husbands along with the young man who owns the villa. And what do you know, it has a similar remedial effect on the dudes. Who woulda thought?
Is it way too cute? You bet! Lady Caroline's situation annoyed the heck out of me at first. We're supposed to believe her attempts to be rude and stand-offish keep failing because her face is such a beautiful filter. My word, was Elizabeth Von Arnim serious? Mean girls with snarky intentions can always get their messages across, no matter what they look like! But when you look at all the five star reviews, it seems this book somehow gets away with heavy-handedness that might destroy any other story. Or who knows, maybe the atmosphere starts working its way with us through the pages. I went from groaning to grinning, yet the kitsch writing quality surely never changed.
It's quite cool when the owner, Thomas Briggs, tells Rose that he's an orphan. 'Oh, are you,' she said, with proper sympathy. 'I hope you've not been one for very long. No, I mean I hope you've been one very long. No, I don't know what I mean, except I'm sorry.' At least Von Arnim has nailed the awkward response.
I kept thinking I should DNF it and move on, but continued turning the pages for the following reasons.
1) I like seeing how people who have just met each other manage to work through personality clashes and find common ground. It's the same reason I occasionally persevere with reality TV series.
2) The concept of healing environments intrigues me, because I do believe place contains power.
3) I appreciate epiphanies. It's easier for readers to take characters' lessons on board, especially when we have no means of getting to breathtaking Italian villas ourselves.
4) The inclusion of the blokes shows good sportsmanship. This story isn't just feminist propaganda about how women may be better off without them, but stays well balanced, showing that there are two sides to communication glitches.
5) I like garden settings. Anyone who liked The Secret Garden may enjoy hanging out with four grown-up versions of Mary in a similar environment.
I guess Von Arnim's two main themes are as solid and sound as they ever were. Firstly, whenever we start treating others with kindness and respect, they may surprise us by acting nicer toward us in return. And secondly, our environments truly do make a difference to our satisfaction levels, and perhaps even altar our characters for the better. So it's in our own best interest to choose good ones whenever we can. This book is a lovely destination overall, but prepare yourself for quite a cheesy, twee road to get there.