Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen

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Reviewed by Victoria

When I first heard that an author had produced a rewrite of Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, I was extremely eager to read it. I love von Armin’s book and anything that adds to the store of global feel-good literature works for me. Once the book had arrived, I began to wonder about the implications of such a close reworking; after all the zombie mash-ups and the erotic rewrites of classics, was this opening a door too far in the labyrinth of parasite novels? But once I’d actually read it, my fears were mostly assuaged. Enchanted August does borrow the characters and plot of the original, and retains its sunshiny spirit, as you might expect. But beyond these similarities, the book has its own modern concerns and its own unique charm.

Lottie Wilkes and Rose Arbuthnot are both caught by the notice pinned to the Happy Circle Friends’ pre-school bulletin board, advertising the delights of renting Hopewell Cottage, Little Lost Island, in Maine: ‘Spring water, blueberries, sea glass,’ the notice promises, and these sound very good in the middle of a hot and humid New York summer. For both these women, motherhood has made irreversible in-roads into the harmony of their marriages. Lottie’s son, Ethan, is a terrible sleeper and still ends up in their bed every night, whilst Rose’s twins, Bea and infant-hooligan, Ben, have sucked her energy dry, as well as her creative zest (she was once a poet). Lottie’s husband, Jon, is an ambitious and overworked lawyer, Rose’s husband, Fred, won a major award for a novel, and is now writing potboiler thrillers under a pseudonym. Neither is particularly happy with his wife, or engaged in the demanding business of parenting.

Seduced by the idea of a month to recuperate and refind themselves, Lottie and Rose meet with the cottage’s owner, Robert SanSouci, a man who, in this modern version, is well aware of the magic his property can work: ‘He’d learned, over the years, that the only families or couples or women – in fact, mostly women – who would take the plunge to rent Hopewell Cottage for a month were those for whom the stakes were highest.’ Or as he tells Rose, ‘Whoever needs to go there gets to go there.’ Robert is enchanted by Rose’s appearance, convinced she looks just like Helga in the Andrew Wyeth series of nudes, and he is subsequently filled with hope that Rose will fall in love with Hopewell, and as a matter of inevitability, with its owner as well.

So, Rose and Lottie need more people to share the enormous cost of a month’s rent and their adverts attract two strangers: Caroline Dester, a famous film star who longs for seclusion after a humiliating let-down at the Oscars, and Beverley Fisher, a bad-tempered elderly gentleman (in Bowen’s most likeable twist to the original) who is mourning the loss of his composer partner to AIDs and the demise of his beloved cat, Possum. Both are dead set on maintaining their privacy throughout the duration of the holiday, and of having little or nothing to do with their co-renters, though of course things don’t turn out that way.

Maine makes a crisper, damper, more sociable backdrop to proceedings than Portofino in Italy did in the original:

The sea before [Rose] lay asleep, hardly stirring and yet somehow breathing, alive. You could see for miles, all the way out to the Atlantic. Across the narrow bay the mountains – each one a different color – were materializing from the mist, and at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the cottage arose she saw a great horse chestnut tree, cutting through the deep blues and the heather of the mountains with its canopy of brilliant green.

Lottie and Rose are soon being inveighled into life on a Maine island, with its tennis matches, cocktail parties and the Ladies’ Association for Beautification. It’s altogether a more doing novel than The Enchanted April, which studied its characters in their blessed isolation, peeling back layer after layer of their identities. Inevitably, with so much activity on hand to turn the cogs of the plot, and with young children soon in the mix requiring entertaining, there’s not much space for anything in the way of profound character development. And in any case, the problems of the characters seem lighter and more superficial. I was amazed when reading some of the reviews on Goodreads how many readers felt the characters to be unsympathetic, when they struck me as ordinary, perfectly normal, flawed human beings, who have the chance to relax and unwind in a beautiful location that gives them a chance to find their better selves. After all, if they didn’t have problems, they wouldn’t need a holiday.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story, which was light and funny and entirely restful. It’s a delightful holiday book, something to cheer you up and offer its own form of restorative escape. It can’t touch Elizabeth von Arnim, who was, apart from anything else, a brilliant wordsmith, and it sensibly doesn’t try. Though it’s possible that von Arnim might well have appreciated the phrase ‘to log some sack time’ as it pertains to marriage.  Instead, think of Enchanted August as an homage, a public acknowledgement of allegiance, as the dictionary describes it, to a wonderful classic and its belief in the capacity of human nature to heal and expand in the sunshine.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and has reviewed the new reprint of Enchanted August by Elizabeth Von Armin too.

Brenda Bowen, Enchanted August (Vintage: London, 2015.) 978-1784701130, 320 pp., paperback original.

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