I felt a sudden longing to record…to retain…my everyday life here in Madensky Square. I shall remember my tragedies, my follies and my joys – everyone remembers those. But what of the ordinary things, the little happenings? What of the ‘dailiness’ – who has a care for that?
I think this is the first Eva Ibbotson book I’ve read. I say ‘think’ because it’s possible that I’ve read one or two of her children’s books (Which Witch? sounds very familiar), but this is definitely the first time I’ve read one of her adult or young adult books. Ibbotson is an author I’ve been wanting to try for a long time as so many of the bloggers I follow keep mentioning how much they love her. Madensky Square isn’t one that I’ve heard much about so probably wouldn’t have been the one I would have chosen to start with, but Amazon were offering it as their Kindle Daily Deal a few weeks ago and I couldn’t resist!
The book is set in Austria just a few years before the start of the First World War. Our narrator, Susanna Weber, is a dressmaker with a small but busy shop on Vienna’s Madensky Square. At the beginning of the novel, Susanna tells us that for the next twelve months she is going to keep a journal recording the lives of her friends, her customers and the other inhabitants of Madensky Square. She starts her story in the spring of 1911 and in the pages that follow we meet and get to know the people who populate Susanna’s world.
Being a dressmaker gives Susanna the opportunity to meet a wide range of people from different walks of life. She hears all of their gossip and becomes involved in the various dramas taking place in each of their lives. There’s Frau Schumacher, for example, who already has six daughters and whose husband is hoping for a son to inherit his timber business; how will he react if their next child is another girl? Then there’s Nini, Susanna’s Hungarian assistant, who is an anarchist and needs to decide whether her political beliefs are more important than her chance of love. Others include the Countess von Metz, a proud, sharp-tongued old lady who still loves buying dresses despite living alone and in poverty, the beautiful and very religious Magdalena Winter, and the eccentric Professor Starsky, an expert in Reptile Diseases. There are a large number of characters, but they are all so different and described in so much depth I never had any difficulty remembering who they all were. Some did feel a bit stereotypical (particularly the plain and awkward ‘bluestocking’, Edith Sultzer, and the fat butcher, Herr Huber) but I could overlook that as they were still so well-written and memorable. Even Rip the dog, whose owner sends him out every day with a little purse tied around his neck to buy the newspaper, has a distinct personality of his own!
Susanna herself is a lovely, warm person who others frequently look to for help and advice. However, her own life is no less interesting and complicated than that of any of the other characters I’ve mentioned. She has experienced a lot of sadness and loss in her past, but I don’t want to give too much of her personal story away as it’s only revealed to the reader slowly as the book progresses. Of all the other storylines in Madensky Square, my favourite was the one involving Susanna’s relationship with Sigismund Kraszinsky, a young Polish orphan. Sigi is a talented pianist and his uncle has brought him to Vienna in the hope of furthering his career as a musician, which unfortunately comes at the expense of allowing him to have a normal childhood. The story of how Susanna befriends this lonely, nervous little boy and tries to bring some happiness into his life is one of the most moving of the novel’s many subplots.
I loved reading the descriptions of Madensky Square itself, with its fountain, café and statue of Colonel Madensky, as well as the countryside, the opera houses and all the other places Susanna visits; I especially enjoyed reading about Susanna and Sigi’s trip to the magical Grottenbahn in Linz! I was satisfied with the way the book ended too – it wrapped things up nicely for all the characters we had been following in so much detail and had grown to love and care about over the course of the novel. There are happy endings for some of them, but not for others, which is realistic and more effective than if there had been a fairytale ending for everyone.
I loved this book and I’m hoping that maybe those of you who are Eva Ibbotson fans can tell me which of her books I should try next?