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The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

January 26, 2012 18 comments

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt 1996. French title: L’envoûtement de Lily Dahl.

The truth is, Miss Dahl, you can’t know nothin’ about nobody now, can you? Seems to me you yourself could hurt somebody if the time and place was right. That’s so ain’t it? Even them that’s closest to you, you can’t really know ‘bout them. One day you wake up and find out. Folks say ‘It ain’t possible, it can’t happen.’ You live a little longer, and it happens.

This month, our book club had chosen The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. How am I going to review it? Everything I could write will be pale compared to the hypnotic and eerie rhythm of the book. *sigh*

Webster, Minnesota. Lily Dahl, 19, works the morning shift at the Ideal Café. She waitresses the early birds who come for breakfast every day. There are Pete Lund who never speaks, the filthy Bodlers brothers, the unbalanced Martin Petersen and other weirdos or lonely people of Webster.

Well, there’s no law against weirdos, Lil’. This is America. We grow ’em fast and furious.

Lily lives in a small apartment next to the café. Her parents moved away to Florida, she has no family left in Webster. Her neighbour is Mabel, a 78 years-old widow, former English teacher, currently writing her memoirs. The walls are thin as cigarette paper; Lily can hear Mabel move in her bed. The two women befriend despite the difference in age and culture. But as Lily once says to Mabel “You don’t act that old, you know” and the older woman retorts “Well, my inside never caught up with my outside”. Isn’t that a marvelous definition of old age?

Lily’s an aspiring actress; she admires Marilyn Monroe and has her poster on her wall. She plays in the local theater; she got the role of Hermia in A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. The play and the rehearsal will follow us along the book, enforcing the dreamlike atmosphere.

Although she’s dating Hank, Lily is obsessed with Edward Shapiro, a painter from New York, settled in the rotten Stuart Hotel across the street. Lily watches him at night, spying on him, trying to know him. One evening, she strips in front of her window with the light on, knowing he’ll be watching her. She sets their relationship into motion and starts an affair with Ed.

This novel puts the reader into a trance, diving them into the atmosphere of this small rural American town. Everybody knows everything about everybody. Gossip is unavoidable, anonymity impossible. Old stories from the past are never quite forgotten and remain with the people. As Lily thinks:

Stupid town, she said to herself, full of long noses sniffing for dirt and those lips yakking about it once they’ve found it.

I couldn’t help hearing the song Marylin & John by Vanessa Paradis. Not that I’m a fan but some way I couldn’t put it out of my mind. It’s about the love affair between Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy. Lily has something of Marilyn Monroe, the same mix of boldness and innocence, of sensuality and youth. In the book, Lily has dark hair (isn’t that strange for someone of Norwegian origin?) but I couldn’t help imagining her with blond hair and a full mouth.

I can’t explain exactly the heavy atmosphere, the feeling that a drama is looming. I felt like reading an old movie, with that peculiar light I can’t describe right. The desert street at night, the shabby hotel and the Ideal Café, far from being ideal contrast with the natural setting of that Minnesota summer, its wild flowers, its heat. Siri Hustdvedt has a thing for inventing tortured and unusual characters. Who is really Ed with his peculiar paintings and his curious way to reach the soul of his models? What does he want from Lily? And what goes through the mind of the strange Martin Petersen with his abnormal intelligence and his bizarre attraction to Lily? Lily isn’t quite herself during that summer, enchanted, she acts out of character. It’s like a LA atmosphere from a Noir crime fiction novel misplaced in the setting of The Little House on the Prairie.

I loved this novel but I can’t review it properly, so I’m very frustrated. I can’t put my impressions into words, except that it’s well worth reading for the story and the style, that Siri Hustdvedt is a talented writer and that it would make an excellent film.

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