I don’t particularly like cats in real life, but I’ve noticed recently that they are generally a lot more appealing in fiction. A Well-Timed Enchantment (1990) by Vivian Vande Velde has a cat that’s cool like that.
The story starts when Deanna, a fifteen-year-old spending the summer with her mom in France, drops her Mickey Mouse watch down a well. Turns out the well isn’t your average well: it’s magic. To make matters worse, Deanna didn’t drop her watch into the well, she dropped it into medieval France. Now she has to get the watch back before things get really out of hand. Deanna gets some help in the form of Oliver, the black cat she befriended back in modern France. Except now Oliver is a human.
I first read this book when I was sixteen. I loved it so much I read it twice back to back. A Well-Timed Enchantment is one of those books that never get old. You can read it again and again and the story is still just as good as the first time.
Vande Velde’s narrative style here is similar to her other “fairy tale” books (like The Rumpelstiltskin Problem or Heir Apparent) with a blend of traditional story telling and her inimitably modern sensibility. The novel is written with a third person narration that follows Deanna’s perspective.
This novel combines a lot of different elements to great effect. One of the best characters (in any of) Vande Velde’s work is Oliver. Turns out cats don’t see things the same way humans do. I don’t know how convincingly anyone can write in the voice of a cat-turned-human but Vande Velde seems to do a good job of it.
The story is quick and fairly simple. There are a lot of things that older readers can enjoy and comment on, but the story is straight-forward enough that younger readers can also keep up. I might even go as far as to say it’s a great feminist-oriented book for children (some might call it “anti-princess”) because Deanna plays a significant role in fixing things (getting back the watch) even though Oliver does help quite a bit.
My only issue with A Well-Timed Enchantment is the ending. Some readers will tell you they like a good, open-ended finish. It’s more realistic, it encourages readers to use their imagination, etc. There is a time and place for open-endedness. This book does not happen to be the best place for it. Vande Velde acknowledges this in her dedication (it’s dedicated to a girl even though she hated the ending). Over the years the ending has rankled less because, having given the matter more thought, I’ve been forced to conclude that there might not be a better way to end things. But it still left me frustrated after my first reading.
Despite the somewhat irritating ending, this book is amazing. The characters are endearing, the story is fun, Oliver is awesome. Vande Velde is as creative and fun here as ever.
Possible Pairings: Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin