Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Target Audience: Middle Grade
Summary: At birth, Ella is inadvertently cursed by an imprudent young fairy named Lucinda, who bestows on her the "gift" of obedience. Anything anyone tells her to do, Ella must obey. Another girl might have been cowed by this affliction, but not feisty Ella: "Instead of making me docile, Lucinda's curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally." When her beloved mother dies, leaving her in the care of a mostly absent and avaricious father, and later, a loathsome stepmother and two treacherous stepsisters, Ella's life and well-being seem to be in grave peril. But her intelligence and saucy nature keep her in good stead as she sets out on a quest for freedom and self-discovery as she tries to track down Lucinda to undo the curse, fending off ogres, befriending elves, and falling in love with a prince along the way.
Type of Adaptation: Retelling
So, disclaimer right at the start, I am fully aware that I view this novel through something of a nostalgia filter because this was the first fairy tale adaptation that I ever remember reading, and I adored it when I was younger, and it remains one of my favorite novels of all time ever, and it’s what got me into fairy tale novelizations in the first place. Rereading it for this review, I did my best to as objective as possible, but basically, this book is amazing and nothing and no one will ever convince me otherwise.
So, Ella is a girl cursed with obedience. It wasn’t intended as a curse initially; it was intended to be a gift, a blessing, from a well-meaning but significantly misguided fairy named Lucinda. But it became a curse very quickly because anything Ella is told to do, she must do, whether it’s to finish her dinner, to stop crying, or to cook herself in a stewpot. She has no control and no choice. If she tries to delay or disobey, the curse causes her incredible pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, etc. Ella must be obedient.
She hates it, and I love how feisty this girl is, how strong in mind and spirit, and I love that a gift designed to make her pliable and easy to manage has, in fact, done just the opposite – it’s made her stubborn and rebellious and clever.
Because Ella has found little ways around the curse, learning how to obey the orders she’s given to the letter but not the spirit, wasting the time of the person giving the order and forcing them to be more and more specific.
Not that many people are aware of the curse; in fact, hardly anyone is. Ella’s mother knows, and Ella’s cook/fairy godmother Mandy. But the curse has been kept secret from everyone else, both because Ella sure doesn’t want anyone else knowing, and because Ella’s mother gave her a rare command not to tell anyone.
But while this one aspect of her life sucks, in general, Ella’s life and childhood don’t. Her father, a difficult and cold-hearted man, travels as a trader and is hardly ever home. Ella’s mother adores her and raises her with love and laughter, and Mandy is stern but obviously cares for Ella as well, and so things aren’t too bad.
Until Ella’s mother dies. And her father returns home to find that his daughter is clumsy and awkward and too tall and doesn’t know how to do anything that he deems valuable. She can’t dance or sing or embroider, she isn’t at home in fancy clothing or in a fine setting. She breaks things and is too stubborn for her own good. So when he hears at his wife’s funeral of a finishing school that a woman called Dame Olga is sending her two daughters to, he packs Ella up and sends her along as well. Ella is ordered to go, and so, there is nothing she can do.
The only people upset about this development (apart from Ella) are Mandy and the prince, Char. Ella met Char at her mother’s funeral, and he was kind and gracious toward her as no one else was that day. And he knew the real version of her mother, the fun-loving woman who was always full of laughter, not the dutiful wife and lady that everyone else spoke of. Ella and Char struck up a friendship that day, and Char is indignant on Ella’s behalf because, as he says, she doesn’t need to be finished – she’s fine the way she is!
But despite having the prince in her camp, Ella is off to finishing school, where she is inundated and overwhelmed with orders – to correct her posture, to learn to sew, to dance gracefully, to eat properly, the curse forces her bit by bit to become “finished,” and Ella hates every minute of it, except for the time she spends with Arieda, the one girl she becomes friends with.
Hattie, daughter of Dame Olga and Ella’s future stepsister (spoilers) discovers Ella’s curse, sort of. She works out that Ella has to do whatever she’s told, though she doesn’t know why. She doesn’t need to, though, not to thoroughly order Ella about. And when Hattie orders Ella to stop being friends with Arieda, Ella has had enough. Rather than have to obey the order, she runs away in the middle of the night, making up her mind to track down Lucinda, the fairy who cursed her, and try and convince her to take the curse away.
She learns that Lucinda will be at a giant’s wedding, so she sets out in that direction. Along the way, she’s captured by ogres, the kingdom’s most dangerous enemy because they have the power of persuasion, not that they need it with Ella. But one of Ella’s gifts is a way with languages, and she manages to turn their technique against them long enough for help to arrive in the form of Char and his knights. Char and Ella rekindle their friendship, and he sees her safely delivered to the giant’s wedding.
At the wedding, Ella manages to track down Lucinda and beg for the gift of obedience to be taken away, but no dice. Lucinda tells Ella to be happy with her gift, and because it’s an order, Ella has to obey, an order that turns her into a puppet and really shows just how insidious a gift this can be – with the right command, your thoughts and emotions aren’t even your own, which is one of the most horrifying aspects to me.
Mandy is able to reverse this command once Ella makes it home, but there are bigger problems up ahead. Ella’s father has lost his fortune, and his solution is for Ella to marry a rich man. When that falls through, because he can’t find one rich enough, Sir Peter is left with no other choice than to find a rich lady for him to marry.
Reenter Dame Olga and her horrible daughters. Sir Peter lies to Dame Olga about his own fortune, leading her to believe that he’s still as rich as he ever was – at least until after they’re married. Ella can’t stand the proceedings or Hattie and Olive, so she slips away from the wedding, and ends up spending an afternoon with Char, exploring the old castle. They find a pair of fairy-made glass slippers on their explorations that fit Ella perfectly (Ella has a drop of fairy blood in her, which means she will always have the abnormally small feet of fairies), and Char gives them to her as a gift.
I love the friendship Levine builds between these two because, as you all should know by now, I love it when romance in these stories is built on more than just “love at first sight.” I love when it has a firm base, and this one does. Char tells Ella that he’s leaving in a few days to spend a year in a neighboring kingdom, and that he wants to write to her while he’s gone. Then he convinces her to slide down the stair bannister, which is, of course, when her new stepfamily finds them.
Hattie is furious that Ella should be so close with the prince, and so, when he calls on Ella the next two days, Hattie orders Ella to stay in her room, so Ella doesn’t get the chance to say goodbye to Char before he leaves, and they part on uncertain footing. Luckily, Hattie doesn’t know that they’re writing letters, and as they write back and forth, their friendship deepens, and Ella falls more and more in love.
It’s about the only thing life has going for her. Dame Olga discovered that her new husband is basically broke, and while he is able to travel and escape her, Ella has no such respite. She’s forced to be a servant in her own home because Dame Olga refuses to treat her as a lady, given that she has no wealth. So Mandy takes her in as a scullery maid, and while Ella’s life isn’t what she would wish, it could be worse.
And then Char confesses his love to her in a letter. And for one shining night, she’s over the moon, thinking that this is her way out. She marries the prince, and he takes her away from Hattie and Olive and Dame Olga, and she spends the rest of her life with the man that she loves.
But in the light of day, she knows she can’t accept Char. Her curse makes it impossible; it would endanger him in the worst way. She could be ordered to spy, to betray, to kill him. And she can’t tell him about the curse – her mother forbade it. So the only thing to do is to break his heart.
This moment is beautiful and heart-breaking. Because yes, you can argue that there were other options – tell him she doesn’t love him but wants to still be friends, for instance – but Ella knows that even as friends, she’s a danger to Char. Hell, she’s a danger to him just by existing, but even more so if she’s close to him in any degree. And there’s nothing she could tell him that would convince him to break off their friendship.
So she does the only thing she can. She breaks his heart so thoroughly that he’ll hate her, playing on his hatred of being made to look like a fool, because that’s the only way he’ll eventually move on. She writes as her stepsister Hattie, telling him that Ella eloped with an old rich man, that Ella used to read Char’s letters aloud to the family and was only ever taking advantage of Char’s attentions. Then she writes a short letter in her own voice, to drive it all home.
It’s the hardest thing she’s ever had to do, and Mandy resolves to do something about it. So summons Lucinda and tricks her into agreeing to try out her so-called “wonderful” gifts, to see if they’re really so grand. It gives Ella hope that, if she realizes how awful it is to have to be obedient all the time, Lucinda will take the gift away, since she remains the only one who can.
And while Mandy’s plan works, it works a little too well for Ella, because Lucinda has sworn off all big magic, and while she now knows everything Ella has gone through, she won’t take the risk of removing the curse.
So now we have Ella, still cursed, all hope gone, a servant in her own home, the man she loves with all her heart hating her. She’s at her lowest point. And that’s when Char’s return is announced, along with a three-day festival being thrown by the king.
Ella is determined to go, both to spite her step-family and to see Char one last time. She resolves not to approach him in any way, just to see him from afar, but she needs that closure. She and Mandy make three gowns and a mask in secret, but on the night of the first ball, it’s raining, which means Ella can’t walk to the palace as was her plan. In a moment of desperation, she calls on Lucinda, who agrees to help as long as it’s with small magic – transforming objects rather than creating new ones, and the transformations will be temporary, disappearing by midnight. So Ella ties on her mask, climbs into the pumpkin-turned-coach, and heads to the ball.
She sees Char, and watches him, but it isn’t enough, and so, breaking her resolve, she jumps into the receiving line. She changes the pitch of her voice and calls herself Lela (. . . really? Sweetie, I don’t think you’re trying very hard, here), and is determined to be just like the other girls, sweet and polite, but she can’t stand the idea of Char being bored with her, finding another girl to dance with, falling in love with someone else right in front of her eyes, and so she makes one comment like her true self, and it makes him laugh, and he asks her to dance.
She comes the next night, and he spends as much of it with her as he can. Hattie is not pleased, and she takes “Lela” aside to tell her that she and Char are secretly engaged, and that she must ask to see “Lela’s” face behind the mask, to protect her. Because she didn’t order it, Ella can refuse, so Hattie tries to plant doubt in Char’s mind, but no dice.
Char asks “Lela” to stay longer the third night, to hear him sing, and Ella resolves to be able to. She foregoes Lucinda’s magic that night so she can stay past midnight, and the moment she enters the ballroom, Char is at her side, and it’s clear he doesn’t intend to leave it.
But my favorite moment of this portion of the novel is when Char takes Ella aside and confesses that he might have been misleading her, spending so much time with her. He admits that the purpose of the balls is to find him a wife, but that he has no intention of marrying, and he hopes she isn’t disappointed to learn that. I love this, because it’s another example of a character taking charge of his own destiny. The balls were the king’s idea; Char doesn’t appreciate being forced into a marriage without being consulted about it, so he’ll go along with the balls, but he’s not going to choose a bride. It’s not a vow I think he can realistically keep – the need for heirs and all – but I appreciate that in this moment, that’s his move.
He tells Lela that even though love is supposed to be forever, friendship can be, too, and then he starts to ask a question, but before he can get it out, Hattie dances by and snatches off Ella’s mask. Char recognizes her immediately, of course, as does Hattie, and that’s why Ella runs. Not because it’s midnight, not because of any magic, but because she realizes how foolish she’s been, so desperate for his voice and his touch that she forgot why she broke his heart in the first place.
She runs home, losing a shoe along the way, but she can’t stop. She has to take Mandy and escape someplace where Char can’t find her, can’t come after her, can’t be put in danger by her.
But Char comes faster than Ella thought he would, and he knows where she lives. Before Ella and Mandy can slip away, the entire household is forced to assemble. Ella tries so hard to disguise herself, but she’s pulled out anyway, and it’s clear that Char recognizes her immediately. But Ella (and Hattie) denies who she is, and so Char pulls out the slipper, the magic fairy slipper they found in the palace that day, the one he gave to Ella. He knows it’s hers. He tells her that it will fit Ella and Ella alone.
Hattie tries to claim the slipper as hers, but it’s fairy-made, for fairy-feet, so it doesn’t fit her or Olive. Char draws Ella to a chair and slips it on, but he does so privately, not making a show of it, and he sees how utterly terrified she is when it fits, this proof of who she is. And so, even though he doesn’t understand it, he tells her, in a whisper, “You needn’t be Ella if you don’t want to be,” and . . . guys, it’s such a wonderful, beautiful moment. Char was my first literary crush, and this scene is why.
Because he’ll let her go if she tells him to. He doesn’t understand why, doesn’t know why she lied or why his presence here inspires so much fear, but if she tells him to go, he will. He figures out that her letter was a trick, and she confirms it. He asks if she loves him, he needs that from her, and she confesses that she does. And he says, “Then marry me!”
It’s a command, though Char never intended it as one. But it is a command, and Ella must be obedient. Hattie commands her not to marry the prince, but Dame Olga steps in and says with a princess for a stepsister, she’ll have everything she wants, and Ella knows it’s begun, what she was so afraid of, the reason why she broke Char’s heart in the first place.
She’s been ordered to say yes, to accept his proposal, to marry him. But she can’t. She can’t put him in that danger, she can’t let herself be used against him. She has to say no.
This two-page scene is one of my favorite things that’s ever been written, guys, because it is so powerfully and effectively done, Ella’s inner turmoil, her struggle to fight against the curse, to save Char by breaking it, by finding the strength to refuse him. And that need, that love, is strong enough when nothing else has been. It isn’t easy. It’s the hardest thing Ella has ever done, but she is finally able to yell, “No!” and refuse to marry Char.
Ella is jubilant, refusing him over and over again, and Char is confused, and it’s just . . . lovely. It’s lovely, and I love it. He asks why she won’t marry him if she loves him, making it clear that she doesn’t have to, that she can say no, he’s just confused, and she tells him that she’s cursed, and he wouldn’t be safe if he married her.
And then she realizes that she shouldn’t be able to tell him that. And she thinks back on all the commands she has not followed in the last minute or so, and Mandy confirms what she doesn’t dare believe – the curse is broken. And Ella kneels before Char and asks him to marry her. And happily ever after.
God, I love this book. I could rhapsodize all day, but this review is already over a week late, so I’m just gonna take us to the checklist.
Give Cinderella control of her own destiny? You wouldn’t think so, would you, with a main character cursed into obedience? And yet, Ella takes charge of her own story undeniably. I love that forcing her to be obedient to every command has actually made her incredibly strong-willed and stubborn, determined to fight against a world constantly telling her what to do. I love that the secret to breaking the curse lies is loving Char enough to refuse him. I love that, in the end, Ella’s curse isn’t taken away by Lucinda or removed by Mandy or broken with a kiss from Char – she breaks it herself. She rescues herself. I love it, and I love her.
Enhance the role of the prince? Every time I read this book, I fall in love with Char all over again. He’s not perfect, but he is good, through and through, right down to his core. He is pure-hearted and a good friend, and he loves Ella enough to trust her, to let her go if that’s what she needs. I love the relationship built up between these two throughout the novel, that while Char did fall in love with Ella, what he was really looking for most was a friend, someone he could talk to, and he fell in love with Ella because she was able to be that for him, first and foremost.
Address the plot transgressions? Let’s see.
Why does Cindy’s dad allow her to be treated so horribly? Because he’s kind of a horrible human being, and I love it. I love that Levine had the guts to characterize the father in this way. He is cold-hearted and closed-off and he doesn’t really care about his daughter. His business has always been more important to him.
Why doesn’t Cindy fight her servitude or leave if she’s being treated so badly? Because she can’t. She’s cursed to obey, and she’s been ordered to be a servant. She fights against it in all the ways that she can, but she can’t actually leave.
Why hasn’t the fairy godmother made an appearance before this point, if she’s charged with Cinderella’s happiness and well being? The FG’s role is split between Mandy and Lucinda, and Mandy has always been there, protecting Ella, watching over her, keeping her safe, acting as you would expect a FG to act.
Anybody going to question glass slippers? They’re fairy-made to bend and give without breaking.
Why don’t the slippers disappear along with the rest of the FG’s gifts? They weren’t given to her by Lucinda; she got them earlier from the prince.
Why does the prince need the shoe to identify Cinderella, and is it really reasonable to assume that it will? Because Ella has super tiny feet, thanks to her fairy blood. But it’s less about the show fitting and more about Char knowing that these slippers specifically are Ella’s, because he gave them to her.
This book is everything a Cinderella adaptation should be. Nostalgia goggles or not, this remains one of my favorite books of all time, and nothing will convince me otherwise.
Expect the Cinderella Wrap-Up later today. Thanks for your patience!