A review of The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, by Siri Hustvedt
Published October 3rd, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine
By Siri Hustvedt
Henry Holt, $23
Set in the small town of Webster, Minnesota (a fictionalization of Northfield, says Hustvedt), the novel draws a motley cast of small-town characters into a sensational web of obsession and violence.
The protagonist, the beautiful ingénue Lili Dahl, works in the Ideal Cafe and spends her nights as Hermia in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Soon she enters into an affair with an exotic stranger, Ed Shapiro, a painter transplanted from New York. At the same time, Lily develops a strange interest in the 1932 murder of Helen Bodler, and a reclusive, stuttering weirdo named Martin Petersen (who plays Cobweb in the play) starts to show his interest in Lily.
The coincidence of all this happening at once seems thoroughly unlikely, and the contrived tensions build to a climax that’s straight out of Hollywood.
Hustvedt has an astonishing eye for characterization, though, drawing a wholly believable and memorable cast, and it’s frustrating to see them wasted on such a hokey plot. Despite her descent into the novel’s ersatz drama, Lily remains an intriguing combination of quaintness and transcendent wisdom. Her inarticulate genius shines even through the silliest, most unbelievable circumstances.
Hustvedt also strings interesting motifs through this flawed novel. With Lily and Martin Petersen acting out a drama on and off stage, and with Martin’s psychotic final public display, the novel cleverly skirts the line between reality and the stage, between life and art.