Cinderella, in her traditional form, is a character who drives me absolutely up the wall. Come on, woman—I know you lived in a pre-feminist culture, but don’t you have any backbone at all? Your life’s awful—so do something about it! And the fairy godmother—where was she all these years while Ella was being mistreated? The fairy only shows up when the girl wants to go to a party? (Because obviously that’s something of paramount importance.)
But, like all great fairy tales, Cinderella does have that spark of eternal appeal. Who can’t relate to the dream of being lifted out of your ordinary or even unpleasant life, because that one person (the prince, the book editor, the boss for the dream job, the head of the club…fill in your own relevant personality) sees you and says, yes, you’re special above all others. That’s the core of Cinderella. But Cinderella herself is irritating.
So when you can take that eternal spark and improve on the character and the plausibility—well, as I said when discussing Wildwood Dancing, then you’ve got something. And Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is one of the best retellings of Cinderella I’ve ever read.
Ella is cursed at her christening—if anyone gives her a command (from “eat this cake” to “go jump off a roof”) she has to obey it. And with that one brilliant stroke, Levine has a heroine who, like the traditional Cinderella, does everything her wicked stepfamily tells her to do—but who also has a mind of her own. No one could accuse Levine’s Ella of lacking backbone. She obeys, but I don’t think I’d describe her as obedient. She can think for herself and, as much as she can around the limits of her curse, takes control of her own life.
There’s a good plot, with ogres and adventures and a kind of quest in Ella’s search for a way to overcome her curse, but I think what mostly stands out in my mind are the characters. Ella, of course. And her fairy godmothers—both of them—her more-than-usually complex wicked stepfamily, her absentee father, and, of course, Prince Charmont—because what’s a Cinderella story without a true love, right?
Ella Enchanted probably belongs in the juvenile category, rather than young adult. But, kind of like the original Cinderella, it has a wide appeal, even if you’re not really the target age group. So don’t be scared off just because it’s shelved in the kids section.
I unfortunately can’t quite just ignore the movie here. There is one, but let’s all just pretend that there isn’t. Don’t see it. Really. I did, and I think I spent most of it twitching and saying, “No, no, no, that’s wrong.” Besides getting the details wrong, it got the spirit wrong, and while I can sometimes forgive a movie for changing the facts a little, it’s much harder to forgive a movie for maiming of the spirit of a story.
Because what Ella Enchanted really is is a very practical, plausible (once you accept the existence of magic) retelling of Cinderella. The movie isn’t. But the book is, and it’s well-worth the read.
Author’s site: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/