So, I’ve been on an Eva Ibbotson kick lately, which is timely, as many of her out-of-print romances are being reissued with snazzy new covers aimed at teenaged girls. (No comment, please. I’m a teenager at heart.)
A Countess Below Stairs, despite its predictable plot, might have been custom-designed for me, with its upstairs-downstairs descriptions of life in an English manor house and its heroine, a lady’s maid who is secretly a refugee Russian aristocrat. As in all good fairy tales, the heroine is impeccably good and the villainess perfectly dreadful from the moment she arrives wearing diamond-encrusted vulture feathers. But it’s a comfort read with style: Ibbotson writes delightful prose with a knack for offbeat details and character observations.
A Song for Summer was a darker novel, for all that it starts off like the Sound of Music. Good-hearted Ellen travels to Austria in the 1930s to take charge of a bunch of wild children, in this case the boarders at Hallendorf, a progressive school for the arts. In no time, she imposes order, good cooking and high standards of domestic science on the school’s neglected children and its unruly staff of anarchists and Marxists.
Meanwhile Ellen falls for the groundskeeper, a mysterious Czech-of-all-trades who is smuggling Jewish musicians out of Germany in his off hours. No one’s supposed to know that he’s the Marek Altenburg, promising young composer and conductor, a musical genius who can whip the Vienna Philharmonic into shape overnight.
Austria in the late 1930s is no time or place for Ellen and Marek to fall in love, but of course, they do. Hitler invades, and the plot becomes a melodrama of just-missed chances and too-noble sacrifices that seem destined to to leave everyone miserable. There’s enough of a mix of romanticism, irony, nostalgia, and realism that I really wasn’t sure how this one would turn out. (Hint: happily.)