I actually started reading Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books -first – Which Witch?, The Island of the Aunts, The Secret of Platform 13, The Haunting of Hiram, Dial-A-Ghost, etc., and really enjoyed them. Her children’s books are crisply British, and often involve supernatural creatures, and they’re humorous and delightful. I’d have to advise you to read them separately and far between, though. There comes a point when you’ve read so many of her ghost stories that they tend to feel like you’re reading the same story all over again.
Set in Austria in the 1940’s, A Song for Summer is about Ellen, a young girl who grows up in a feminist and liberal household dominated by prominent suffragettes. While her mother and aunts are engrossed in intellectual pursuits, Ellen is the ultimate domestic goddess, who enjoys cleaning, cooking, and household chores.
When Ellen quits university to become a housemother at the Hallendorf School, she finds comfort in tending to wayward children, eccentric teachers, folk artists, a lame tortoise on wheels, and the mysterious gardener Marek.
Marek turns out to be no common gardener, however. Aside from being a part-time fencing, tea Marek is also a world-famous musician who is involved in Resistance groups that have been smuggling Jews to safety.
Marek and Ellen fall in love, but the war is breaking and their lives are in danger, and they must overcome the shadow of war to fight for their love.
Meanwhile, The Morning Gift (book #70 for 2009) is about Ruth Berger, the bluestocking daughter of a Jewish-Austrian professor. When the Bergers flee Austria for the safety of England, Ruth accidentally gets left behind.
Her father’s dashing young colleague Quin Somerville finds her alone and bewildered, and offers to reunite Ruth with her family. To ensure her safe passage into England, Quin and Ruth decide to have a marriage of convenience, to be dissolved once they get to safety.
In England, however, measures are in place that prevent them from easily getting a divorce or an annulment. Things get more complicated as Ruth enrolls in Quin’s university, and in the class he is teaching.
The more Quin and Ruth try to protect their secret marriage from public knowledge, the more they are drawn to each other, and staying married becomes more appealing.
I’m not exactly sure what I like best about these two books. Like the best romance novels, the theme of Eva Ibbotson’s adult novels is “love conquers all,” enacted by characters that are often good to be true — the female protagonists smart and sassy, and the male protagonists noble and heroic — but lovable all the same. The books remind me of older works of Judith McNaught and Julie Garwood, the historical ones they wrote before they jumped into the whole romantic suspense genre (ugh!), minus the blatant sensuality, which makes it readable for young adults (hence the classification).
Eva Ibbotson is considered a British author, but she was actually born in Vienna, fleeing to England with her family as the Nazis rose to power. I like how her own memories of Vienna and her experience as a refugee weave a lot of sincerity and sensitivity into her work, painting a vivid picture of idyllic pastoral life, making the reader want to live there, goats and all. There’s something very lyrical about her books that make reading them so enjoyable.
The books also give a great insight into the lives of people — not necessarily those that were in the line of battle — during the war: the academia, craftsmen, musicians, women, and children. The books are full of interesting and quirky characters (other than the protagonists) that really grow on you, whether it’s Achilles the tortoise, Professor Chomsky who likes swimming naked on the lake, Verena the scholarly spoiled brat, or the feisty, aristocratic Aunt Frances.
I also like the rich cultural references in the novels, including music (Beethoven, Liszt, Bartok, Chopin, etc), philosophy (Goethe), and especially food and cooking — all those Nordic recipes!
I am having A Countess Below Stairs angel-mooched from the US and I can’t wait to read it, and I am just restraining myself from buying A Company of Swans from Fully Booked, although I don’t know how much longer I will last. I want to complete the whole set soon.
My copy: A Song for Summer and The Morning Gift, both trade paperback
My rating: A Song for Summer, 4/5 stars; The Morning Gift, 4/5 stars