The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson

The Morning Gift This is not the first Eva Ibbotson novel I’ve read – I have previously read Madensky Square and The Secret Countess, both of which I enjoyed – but I’ve been particularly looking forward to this one as so many Ibbotson readers speak so highly of it.

The novel opens in Vienna and introduces us to Ruth Berger, the twenty-year-old daughter of a professor of Zoology, whose life revolves around music, nature and her cousin Heini, the concert pianist she has always expected to marry. When the Nazis invade Austria in 1938, Ruth and her family are forced to flee but while her parents make it to safety in London, Ruth is left behind due to a problem with her student visa. A friend of her father’s, the British scientist Professor Quinton Somerville, comes to the rescue with the suggestion that Ruth marries him as a way of getting to London. Once Ruth is safely in England, the marriage can be annulled.

Of course, things don’t go exactly as planned and dissolving their marriage of convenience proves to be harder than they expected. Ruth becomes a student at Thameside University and finds herself in Quin’s class where it will be impossible for them to avoid each other as the lawyers have advised. While she and Quin struggle with the growing attraction they feel for each other, another complication arrives in the form of Heini who has made his way to England and expects Ruth to marry him as soon as possible. Will Ruth and Quin’s secret marriage be discovered?

The Morning Gift is a lovely, romantic story; it took me a while to get into it as the beginning was quite slow, but I became completely absorbed in the story somewhere in the middle and although it was really quite predictable, I still didn’t want to stop reading until I’d found out how things would end for Ruth and Quin. But there is more to this book than just the romance; among other things, it also offers insights into what life was like for a family who escaped persecution in Austria just in time and took refuge in London. This aspect of the novel is based on the author’s personal experiences – her own mother had to flee Vienna and Eva joined her at Belsize Park in London, where the Berger family live in the novel.

I also liked the academic setting and all the little scientific references that are dropped into the story as Ruth studies for her Zoology degree. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the field course at Bowmont, Quin’s estate in Northumberland. Ruth takes genuine pleasure in the natural beauty of her surroundings – the waves tumbling against the cliffs, the smell of vanilla drifting from a gorse bush, the sound of a curlew calling – and I loved seeing the Northumberland coast through her eyes.

I liked both Ruth and Quin, but there’s also a good selection of strong secondary characters: the other refugees who meet for tea and cakes in the Willow Tea Rooms; Ruth’s Uncle Mishak who copes with his wife’s death by planting radishes; Quin’s formidable Aunt Frances who will do anything to prevent Bowmont being given to the National Trust; and Ruth’s fellow students at the university, especially Verena Plackett, the closest thing to a villain in this novel. There are many more – too many to mention here – but all of them have something to add to the story.

I did enjoy The Morning Gift but it’s probably my least favourite of the three Ibbotson novels I’ve read so far. There was nothing in particular that I disliked about this book (apart from the slow start); it’s just that I preferred The Secret Countess and Madensky Square. I’m looking forward to continuing to work through the rest of Ibbotson’s novels!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret Countess The Secret Countess (also published as A Countess Below Stairs) is set in 1919 and the title character is Anna Grazinsky, the daughter of a Russian count and countess. During the Russian Revolution, she and her mother and brother are forced to flee their home in St Petersburg for safety in England, but on the journey they lose their remaining family jewels and arrive in England with nothing. Determined to get a job so that she can help to support her family, Anna finds a position as a maid at Mersham, the estate of the Earl of Westerholme. With Selena Strickland’s The Domestic Servant’s Compendium as her guide, she settles into her new job and earns the respect and friendship of the other servants, who are unaware that she is a countess.

The young Earl, Rupert Frayne, is returning to Mersham for the first time since leaving to fight in the First World War and has announced that his fiancée, Muriel Hardwicke will soon be joining him. At first the Fraynes, their friends and their servants are pleased with the news of Rupert’s forthcoming marriage because Muriel is a rich heiress and her money means that the future of Mersham will be safe. But while Rupert is awaiting Muriel’s arrival, he notices the new Russian housemaid and finds himself falling in love.

It was not hard to predict what was going to happen in The Secret Countess! From the beginning it was obvious how it was going to end, but that didn’t make the book any less enjoyable. After finishing the dark and disturbing Gretel and the Dark I wanted something light and gentle to read next and this book was the perfect choice. I thought it was a lovely story with a magical, fairy tale quality and an old-fashioned feel (the book was first published in 1981 but could have been much older than that). The romance between Anna and Rupert is a subtle, understated one and doesn’t ever really dominate the story, but I never doubted that there would be a happy ending and that they would somehow overcome the obstacles in their path.

While my preference is usually for books that are less predictable and with characters that are more complex and nuanced (most of the characters in this book are either completely ‘good’ or completely ‘bad’ with nothing in between) that didn’t really bother me this time. Anna could easily have been one of those sickening heroines who is too good to be true – she’s beautiful, generous, sweet, kind and loving – but I couldn’t help liking her anyway. In the same way, the character who turns out to be the villain of the novel is horrible in every way, yet perfect in the context of the story. Another of the strengths of this book is its wonderful supporting characters. My favourite was the Honourable Ollie Byrne, the little girl who loves life despite its unfairness towards her, but all of the others are given a distinctive personality of their own too – even Rupert’s dog, Baskerville.

If I’ve understood correctly, this book was originally written as a book for adults but has now been repackaged to appeal to YA readers. I honestly think this is a book that could be equally enjoyed by both adults and younger readers and it would be a shame if anyone missed out on reading it because it has been marketed in a certain way. This is only the second book I’ve read by Eva Ibbotson (the other was Madensky Square) and I’m pleased that I still have so many of her other books to explore!

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson

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?