The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

I was reminded of Siri Hustvedt on reading a blog over at A Life in Books about her better-known husband, Paul Auster, and I was immediately overcome by a desire to read a bunch of her books. I like Auster, or liked at least, but I have always found Hustvedt to be the better writer. There is something more in her work, where sometimes Auster can feel superficial. Anyway, I am not supposed to be buying books right now (I’m always not supposed to be buying books) so I typed myself in the direction of Awesome Books and searched their magic bundles and sure enough there were 3 books by Hustvedt available and I availed myself of one of their £6.99 deals. This is how I con myself that buying books looks practically like not buying books at all, even though it is.

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl begins with Lily Dahl, nineteen years old and an aspiring actress, spying out of her window at the man living in the cheap, sad hotel across the street. Ed Shapiro. He is beautiful, half-naked and painting and Lily is entranced by him. She’s been spying on him for a while, but always hidden from him. She hides from him now. Lily lives in an apartment over the Ideal Café, a place where she works so she can build up a stash of cash and move to New York, out of the small town of Webster. She is alone. Her parents have moved to Florida, her grandparents dead. She has no brothers or sisters, just a boyfriend, Hank, a local law enforcement officer, her co-workers at the Ideal Café and Mabel, an elderly lady who lives next door. Lily’s life is small, but that’s okay. She works early, cycles around Webster during the day and in the evening rehearses for the role of Hermia in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And in between she desires Ed Shapiro.

Ed Shapiro is the catalyst, but Lily soon starts to unpick her steady life. She ditches Hank, realising that her relationship with him is staid and boring and she is not devoted to, or particularly interested in, him. The night she ditches Hank she chooses to reveal herself to Ed Shapiro. She waits until he is watching and strips for him through her window, capturing his attention. The next day she goes over to the hotel where he’s living, risking the local gossip and knowing the news will get back to Hank. But she does it anyway. He lets her in, shows her his paintings and makes love to her. He’s much older than she is, thirty-five to her nineteen, but this doesn’t seem to matter. Lily is learning, both about herself and about the world. She is becoming a woman. Alongside her relationship with Ed, she begins to develop a more intimate relationship with Mabel ostensibly over A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mabel coaches Lily on the role of Hermia, transforming her performance from a stilted act to something more mature, more felt. Lily begins to understand the role, to inhabit it. She also begins to learn about Mabel. Much of this interaction is confusing, but something sticks and the lives of the two women become intertwined.

Then there is Martin. Martin is Lily’s age, a strange young man who lives alone. His parents are both dead. Martin comes to the Ideal Café every morning for breakfast. He has a stutter, and raps his order in code on the table each day. Only Lily understands him, or she thinks she does. Martin, too, is in the play taking the role of Cobweb. His stutter doesn’t allow much of a speaking role, but his acting skills are extraordinary. Lily is intrigued by him, but also unsettled. In the café he leaves her a strange note, just the word ‘mouth’ written on a napkin. When she asks him about it, he says he wants her to say the word ‘mouth’. He demands it of her. Lily is unnerved by his behaviour, which seems strange and erratic. Yet something draws them together and Lily becomes more involved in Martin’s life, though not in a way she either expects or wants.

The undercurrent of something strange seems to seep out of the pages. There are sightings of Lily in places she couldn’t be, or doesn’t believe she could be. She is seen naked in the woods by the ‘Jesse James caves’ with two cowboys. Two gnarly old men – Dick and Frank Bodler who run a junk yard – believe they saw Martin carrying Lily’s dead body. Another sighting of a prone woman being carried out of the town on a road is reported in the news, and when Lily asks Hank about it he says she reported it. But she doesn’t remember any of these things happening. Meanwhile she is developing her relationship with Ed and finding things she doesn’t understand and doesn’t like about it. Like why is Ed hanging about with the local prostitute Dolores? She knows he painted her, but why does she keep coming around and what does she know about him? Why does Ed want to paint Mabel and not her? She is racked with jealously and desire, and confused by the strange goings-on and, in particular, Martin’s strange behaviour. Are there two Lily’s, or is she losing her mind?

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl is an entrancing book, compulsive to read and very entertaining. It hides a deeper purpose at its heart. The link to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which I still haven’t seen, despite all my intentions) runs through its core and perhaps if I knew the play better I could elucidate the connections here, but perhaps someone more well-read than me can take up that baton. There is something mysterious going on, a cast of strange characters and quirky happenings. In the centre of it all is Lily, a young woman exploring her desires and her naivety and risky behaviour make a great canvas for the story. Lily is learning about the world, about herself, she is insightful but in a clumsy way, like here when she is watching Ed through the window again:

“Through his window she saw him in his underwear holding a brush near the hidden canvas. She was glad she couldn’t see the picture. It was only then that she remembered Martin in his costume with the girl in his arms. Looking at Ed, she thought, it’s already gone, now, this moment. There isn’t really a “now” at all. Even saying the word “now” is too slow for it. Now slips into then so fast, it’s nothing at all. And as ordinary as this observation was, Lily felt she was living it, and its truth hit her hard. Time was inexpressible.”

The language is deceptively simple, the story too, but there is a sense of enchantment which lingers through the pages like a cobwebby thread. Is Lily the one being enchanted, or is it the reader? It is an enchanting, very easy read and yet it left me with a lot to think about at the end. At its heart the book is about transformation; Lily’s transformation into a self-actualised woman sits alongside the transformation of her perception of others, delivered via Ed Shapiro’s brush. Martin, too, is obsessed by transformation, but also about the things that lie in between: between death and life, between the real and unreal, the said and unsaid, what we are and what we are capable of. Lily is caught there too, though she doesn’t quite see it. Against the backdrop of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play which is also about transformations, there is a magical quality to the book which is offset by the realism of the characters. As a result it is a highly entertaining, extremely readable book which I rattled through at breakneck speed and which I would happily read again. It was dreamlike, but never superficial or lightweight. With well crafted characters and a mesmerising storyline, Hustvedt weaves a perfectly entrancing tale which is a clever and satisfying read.

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl is published in UK by Sceptre.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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5 Responses to The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

  1. JacquiWine says:

    Great review as ever, Belinda. It does sounds very dreamlike, that very word came to mind as I was reading your description of the book..

  2. Thanks for the mention, Belinda. Once I’d read What I Loved it was clear who was the better writer of the two! Whilst there’s much to admire in Auster’s style Hustvedt’s work has more depth and is just as polished in a very different way. It’s been quite some time since I read Lucy Dahl but you’ve made me want to reread it.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Susan. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Lily Dahl if you do get chance to re-read it. It was a surprising book, very warm-hearted and clever. I absolutely agree with your assessment of the ‘better’ writer in the couple. I enjoy Auster’s work, but it is lacking the depth that Hustvedt brings.

  3. JacquiWine says:

    This is very strange. Yesterday morning I left a handful of comments on various blogs via the WP reader and none of them appear to have registered, so frustrating! Anyway, great review as ever. Not an author I’ve ever read, but she does sound interesting (I can recall a time when everyone seemed to be reading or recommending one of her earlier books, What I Loved.) Dreamlike was the word that sprang to mind as I was reading your post on this one, so I’m not surprised to see it in your closing comments.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Jacqui, I’m glad we tracked down your comments eventually! It is dreamlike, I think the association with a Midsummer Night’s Dream is very strong and it creates a strange quality to the work. Hustvedt is incredibly good. What I Loved, in particular, is an excellent read.

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