The Enchantment of Lily Dahl

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At the heart of Webster, Minnesota, on Division Street, lies the shabby but hospitable Ideal Cafe, where young Lily Dahl works as a waitress and also lives above it. Lily's story is also the haunting story of a small town where people are brought together by a powerful sense of place both geographical and spiritual. 288 pp.
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1996 Hardcover First Edition; First Printing New in New dust jacket 0805049207. Book and DJ are New, first edition, first printing, remainder mark on top, B-201, ; 1.2 x 8.4 x ... 5.8 Inches; 275 pages. Read more Show Less

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The Enchantment of Lily Dahl

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At the heart of Webster, Minnesota, on Division Street, lies the shabby but hospitable Ideal Cafe, where young Lily Dahl works as a waitress and also lives above it. Lily's story is also the haunting story of a small town where people are brought together by a powerful sense of place both geographical and spiritual. 288 pp.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set in a small Minnesota town whose entire population appears to consist of slightly ominous eccentrics, Hustvedt's second novel (after 1992's The Blindfold) presents a coming of age story with Kafka-esque trappings and a mystery veneer. Lily Dahl, 19, is an aspiring actress who works the early morning shift as a waitress at the Ideal Cafe, where her considerably offbeat regulars include the stuttering and intense Martin Petersen, whom she's known since childhood. Lily takes up with Edward Shapiro, an artist from New York who has separated from his wife and is doing a series of portraits of local misfits. While Lily is busy attending rehearsals for her role in A Midsummer Night's Dream and getting acting lessons from her elderly neighbor, there are multiple sightings of a man carrying a woman's corpse around town. As Lily becomes increasingly convinced that young Martin is at the root of the bizarre events, she puts herself at risk to find out the truth. In the end, however, Hustvedt's plot is far simpler than it originally appears, and the somewhat forced strangeness of her characters' behavior may make some readers feel that the narrative is simply contrived. The novel is much stronger as a coming-of-age tale than it is as an existential mystery, however, and Hustvedt has created a charming and scrappy heroine in Lily Dahl. (Author tour.) (Sept.)
Library Journal
Hustvedt follows up the success of The Blindfold (LJ 3/15/92), portions of which appeared in The Best Short Stories of 1991 (LJ 10/1/91), with a riveting portrayal of a young woman in a small Midwestern town, cafe waitress Lily Dahl, who resembles a dark Marilyn Monroe. From her window, Lily watches Ed, a New York Jewish artist, as much seduced by her own eroticism as his. Ed paints private pictures of "people who looked straight out at you, but who were alone at the same time." Hustvedt's poignant depiction of the friendships and loneliness of small town life is reminiscent of Carson McCullers. Lily evolves from an unformed girl to a compelling woman who knows that her hope is her toughness. Rich characterization makes up for an initially slow-moving narrative, which gathers momentum and culminates in the spectacular demise of Lily's eccentric childhood friend. Recommended for all literary collections.Molly Gorman, San Marino, Cal.
From the Publisher
"Siri Hustvedt writes, literally, like a dream—a dream that's at once intensely romantic and disturbingly eerie. This dark, sexy, spooky novel is an indelibly memorable fiction. Read it and it will haunt you."—Salman Rushdie

"Highly original...a crystalline blend of innocence and sophistication, irony and candor."—Newsday

"The Enchantment of Lily Dahl has the power to pull readers firmly into its orbit and to keep them there." —The Village Voice

"She writes like a dream."—GQ

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805049206
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/28/1996
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 8.59 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Siri Hustvedt

Siri Hustvedt is the author of two previous novels, The Blindfold and The Enchantment of Lily Dahl also available from Picador. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul Auster.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 19, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Northfield, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B.A. in history, St. Olaf College; Ph.D. in English, Columbia University

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide Questions

1. Hustvedt makes great use of Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, referring both to its

lines as well as its themes. How does this play relate to the unfolding story of Lily Dahl? Does it have

a double meaning within the story?

2. Spying and voyeurism both have a presence in The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. In the beginning of

the novel, Lily spies on Ed from her window. Mabel spies on the dark, shadowy character who lurks

outside the Stuart Hotel, himself spying, and Martin's later voyeurism becomes obsessive. Why are the

various characters driven to spy? Does Hustvedt make a connection between voyeurism and modern


3. Lily Dahl steals a pair of white shoes from the Bodler farm. "She liked the curve of their stacked

heels and the softness of the leather" (p. 30). Many things happen to these shoes during the course of

the story. They prompt Lily to undress in front of her window for Ed Shapiro. When she feels guilty

for having stolen them, she tries to return them to the Bodler farm, but finds that she cannot. When she

throws them into a fire to burn them, she ends up retrieving them only to hide them under her bed.

What do the shoes mean to Lily? What do Lily's actions regarding the stealing, wearing, and returning

of the shoes indicate about her character? Why is it so important to her to return them? What does she

hope to bury when she finally wraps the shoes in white cotton fabric and buries them near the Bodler


4. Discuss the eroticism in The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. For example, Mabel has a very erotic

drawing of Japanese lovers that Lily notices. Inspired by the stolen shoes, Lily strips in front of her

uncurtained window for Ed. What are some other examples of eroticism? What role does it play in the


5. Lily says that she is attached to the small town of Webster, even though she feels she might one day

escape it. "I feel close to this place," Lily says. "It must be in my bones" (p. 93). What does she mean

by this? How is Lily a part of this community? In what ways does she finally stand apart from it? How

does Hustvedt use the small town of Webster to contribute to the novel's blurring of illusion and


6. Ed is a stranger in the town of Webster. Discuss his "otherness" in terms of the various characters'

perceptions of him. What effect does his presence have on the events that unfold?

7. Who are the Bodler twins, and what do they represent? How is the secret of their mother's death

important to The Enchantment of Lily Dahl?

8. One of the most striking images in the novel is that of Martin Petersen crossing the river in a fairy

costume, carrying a doll in his arms. Explain the symbolism of the elements of this image: the doll,

Martin's costume. What, in his performance, is he acting out or reenacting? How does this experience

forever change the way Lily views the world?

9. The idea of what is real and what is illusion permeates the novel, particularly through the character

of Martin Petersen. He says to Lily, "I'm looking for the way in, I want to find an opening. Do you

ever feel that nothing's real?'s like there is a skin over everything" (p. 64). How does Martin serve

to represent this world between reality and illusion? Once he's drawn Lily into this world, what

distinctions, if any, does she make about reality and illusion?

10. Ed paints the portraits of various disreputable characters in Webster. What is he interested in

capturing or uncovering in his paintings of them? What do his subjects have in common? It is said that

there is something "aggressive" in his paintings, and that he is painting privacy itself. What does this


11. How is Lily transformed by the bizarre events into which she is drawn? What about Lily's

character leads her to become involved with the strange people and situations that she encounters?

What changes do the other characters experience? How are these characters different at the end of the


12.What is the enchantment of Lily Dahl?

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