A review of Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Enchanted August
by Brenda Bowen
Viking Penguin
2015, ISBN 978-0-525-42905

The promotional material accompanying my review copy of Enchanted August includes an interview with author Brenda Bowen in which she discusses the inspiration for the novel. Bowen, a former children’s book publisher, now an author and literary agent, saw the film, The Enchanted April, based on a 1922 novel by the same name, and realized that the story could be transported to the present day and to Maine from Italy.

While it isn’t necessary to have read The Enchanted April to appreciate Enchanted August, knowing about the former adds another layer of texture to the reading experience. Elisabeth Von Arnim, born Marie Annette Beauchamp in New Zealand, is most famous for her 1898 novel, Elisabeth and her German Garden, about an in experienced gardener’s challenges. The Enchanted April centres on four English women who answer an ad in the Times to rent a small medieval Italian castle, San Salvatore, for the month of April.

Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April is partly a satire on British society after the First World War, and partly a fairy tale about the benefits of getting away from it all. Her characters, Lotty and Rose, are unhappily married. Lotty is intimidated by her loud lawyer husband, while Rose is embarrassed about her husband making money writing about sex scandals. Lady Caroline, a beautiful young socialite, is tired of playing that role, while Mrs. Fisher, the fourth of the party, is an elderly lonely widow. After a month at San Salvatore, their lives change for the better.

In Bowen’s Enchanted August, Lottie and Rose are New York mothers of young children, dissatisfied at the way their lives are working out. Lottie’s husband seems to have lost interest in her. Rose’s husband is writing thrillers under a pseudonym, but her poetic talent has been overshadowed by her maternal role. The two women meet at the bulletin board of their children’s preschool, both drawn to a notice about a Maine cottage for rent for August. Both make child care arrangements and go.

Hopewell Cottage turns out to be a mansion on the Maine coast, owned by a Robert Sansouci, a thirtyish musician who depends on the rental income. The two other August renters are Caroline, an actress wanting to avoid the public eye after her poor-loser behaviour at the Oscars, and Beverly, an older man mourning the deaths of his longtime companion and his cherished cat.

Brenda Bowen’s descriptions make coastal Maine in summer sound idyllic; indeed, she deserves an award from the state’s department of tourism for her description of holiday life there. She attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and has vacationed on the Maine coast for many years. “I have my own Hopewell,” she said in her interview.

Enchanted August is a pleasant read, innocent of the mild satire of The Enchanted April. Some readers may find Lottie and Rose too dependent for fulfilment upon their tiresome husbands. I found Lottie’s and Rose’s situations too similar to be interesting; one mum would have sufficed. If an author is creating four women co-protagonists, she should take a tip from Little Women, or Sex in the City, and make each woman unique. Why not have one mother, one career woman, one elderly woman and one from a working class background? Also, by substituting an elderly man for Von Arnim’s elderly lady, Bowen detracts from the theme of women’s friendship and denies readers the perspective of an older woman, though it must be admitted that Beverly’s eccentricities are endearing and his grief convincing.

When authors take a classic novel as their idea and update it, they usually have a reason; they want to add something to the original concept. In A Thousand Acres, for instance, Jane Smiley takes the King Lear plot to Iowa and provides a reason for the enmity between the two elder daughters and the father – sexual abuse. While Bowen skilfully and cleverly transplants and updates von Arnim’s novel, she doesn’t illuminate or expand upon the original in any significant way. Nevertheless, Enchanted August is an enjoyable read for a summer afternoon.

Ruth Latta’s novels about women include An Amethyst Remembrance, Spelling Bee, The Old Love and the New Love and The Songcatcher and Me. Visit her books blog at http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com for information about these and other titles.

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