Review of “The Morning Gift” by Eva Ibbotson

The Morning Gift is a confection of a tale, a combination of Cinderella and Anne of Green Gables for adults. It’s romantic and sweet but also explores a number of serious issues, including gender roles, standards of beauty, class distinctions, and the behavior of bystanders to the Nazi onslaught. Ibbotson herself once said her books were “for the intelligent woman with the flu.”

As the story begins, Ruth Berger is a lovely vivacious girl in pre-World War II Vienna, who enjoys assisting her zoologist father with his investigations. All her parents’ friends and her father’s co-workers are charmed by Ruth and by her love of music, expressed most concretely by her devotion to Heini, a piano prodigy who lives with Ruth and her family. But Ruth, like her father, plans to be a scientist.

When Ruth, now 20, gets stuck in Vienna after the Nazi Anschluss [the incorporation of Austria into Germany in 1938], one of her father’s colleagues – the British paleontologist Quin Sommerville, tries to rescue her. It turns out the only way he can get her out is to marry her, and so they have a “paper” marriage, with the intention of getting an annulment as soon as Ruth is safe.

Once in London, Quin delivers Ruth to Belsize Park in North London, with her family and other newly-poor refugees. Quin goes to his stately home in Bowmont in Northumberland, and charges his London attorney with the task of getting the marriage dissolved. But in spite of their intentions not to see each other, Ruth becomes Quin’s student at Thameside University, and soon they are enmeshed in each other’s lives.

During the course of this delightful and predictable-but-who-cares romp, we also get to meet Ruth’s fellow students, Quin’s family and friends, and a cross-section of the Belsize Park Jewish refugees. They are each endearing or dreadful in unique ways, and add drama, humor, and layers to the plot. In fact, it is quite impressive how real the secondary characters become despite the fact that most of them receive relatively little coverage. Ibbotson’s deft conveyance of a world through a phrase makes us feel like we have known them all of our lives.

The resolution to the story fulfills Ibbotson’s sina qua non (according to her son) “that people will eventually find the right person for them and find the right place to be.”

Discussion: There is so much to recommend in this book aside from its Cinderella aspects. It is, for one, a good look at what life was like for one upper middle class family that managed to get out of Austria before it was too late. In fact, the bare outline of the story comes from the author’s own life. She was born in Vienna to non-practicing Jewish parents. (In the book, both of Ruth’s parents are non-practicing, but one is Jewish and one is Catholic.) Ibbotson’s father, like Ruth’s, was also a scientist and lecturer at a university. After their escape from Vienna, Ibbotson and her mother (the parents got separated), settled in impoverished Belsize Park in London. And like her character Ruth, Ibbotson intended to follow in her father’s footsteps.

Ibbotson takes the opportunity afforded by every Cinderella story to contrast the lifestyle and pressures of the lower and the upper classes, and invariably sets up some of the upper class for ridicule. Some, however, are drawn sympathetically – particularly the handsome-prince-to-be. But she does not vitiate her credibility by portraying the lower classes as a uniform collection of saints. Her work is quite nuanced, even if the heroine is a bit too beautiful and entrancing, albeit definitely not without faults.

(In this regard, I was a bit appalled that so much of the story was devoted to singing the praises of Ruth’s golden-haired, snub-nosed beauty, specifically stated to be in direct contrast to what she might have been expected to look like with a Semitic background. I’m not sure what Ibbotson’s agenda was with this, or if it was even conscious.)

The story also delves into the attitudes of the British about the onslaught of war refugees inundating London. Anti-semitism played an important role in Britain in the 1930s, and included violence by “Blackshirts” against Jewish refugees from Nazi terror. And, as in the U.S., there was much political resistance to accepting further Jewish refugees as their numbers threatened to balloon. Ibbotson seamlessly weaves into her story the attitudes and erroneous preconceptions of the upper classes toward such “foreigners,” including of course Ruth, her family, and fellow refugees, who were definitely considered undesirable. Although the distaste would have been extended to rich as well as poor Jews, part of the problem for the British upper class was that Jews were forced to leave their wealth behind in Germany, and so appeared to be like paupers (and indeed, were often transformed into beggars). Thus they aroused class disgust as well as ethnic prejudice.

Finally, Ibbotson does not hesitate to take on gender roles, contrasting Heini’s egregiously self-centered traditionalist expectations of Ruth with Quin’s more enlightened approach to women.

Evaluation: I loved this book and I love Ibbotson’s style of writing. I have enjoyed every moment I have spent with the two books of Ibbotson’s that I have read so far, and fully intend to catch up on her entire oeuvre.

Rating: 4/5

Published by St Martins Press, 1993


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18 Responses to Review of “The Morning Gift” by Eva Ibbotson

  1. I totally love that…”for intelligent women with the flu”! Well, my whole body hurts this morning, so maybe I’m going to wish I had this one today. 😦 Instead I’ll be reading about the financial crisis, oh joy. I love that you love a predictable love story. There must be something to her writing.

  2. Caroline says:

    I think that was my first Ibbotson and I liked it very much but reading your review I see I’ve forgotten quite a lot. I guess the fact that she didn’t have such a cushy life enters into her writing, gives it more depth.
    Could it be she was blonde herself? Or did she want to underline that it is actually a chliché that Jews were not blonde?

  3. June says:

    This books sounds very thought provoking! I haven’t read this author, but am adding this to my (HUGE) TBR list. Thanks!

  4. bookingmama says:

    Now this fairy tale retelling sounds like it’s wonderful. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  5. zibilee says:

    The thing that interests me the most about this book is the way you describe the secondary characters, though the plot and social and political repurcussions also sound interesting as well. I’ve not tried Ibbotson’s books before, but I do know that Ana really loves her (as you mentioned). This was a really great and well rounded review, and it sounds like a book that I should probably check out!

  6. aartichapati says:

    Wow, I feel like everyone has read Ibbotson but me! In a way, I don’t really know if she will appeal to me. I don’t really like such obviously predictable romances. But if all of you guys like it, then I bet I would, too. I am glad you called out the author on all the commentary about the heroine’s not-Semitic beauty. Very interesting, but a bit jarring, I suspect.

    Sorry I haven’t been by in so long! School is almost done 🙂

  7. Barbara says:

    This sounds good even if you don’t have the flu, and even though the plot may be predictable. The people having escaped from the Nazi’s makes it sound interesting.

  8. BermudaOnion says:

    This sounds excellent – I think my book club would like it a lot.

  9. Margot says:

    I love a good romance and this one sounds like it’s even better than the ordinary ones. I like the time period too. One of my favorite ploys by romance writers is the “marriage of convenience.” This one sounds like it has a new take on that. Thanks for bringing this author to my attention.

  10. I wouldn’t have been drawn to this book at all by the cover, but I do love WWII fiction and nonfiction. It appeals to me too that the story is based somewhat on her own, even if in a small way.

  11. Trish says:

    I must have been asleep with Ana posted about Ibbotson in the past because this doesn’t sound familiar to me at all but it sounds absolutely gorgeous. Like some of the others mentioned, the cover doesn’t do anything for me (actually pushes me away a bit), but I’ll be on the lookout for this one.

    re author’s agenda–I often wonder how many times the author does have an agenda and how many times it’s subconscious….

  12. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    I have a few of her books in my library but they rarely get checked out. I’ll have to try a few for myself!

  13. stacybuckeye says:

    A new-to-me author. This Cinderella story looks like one I caould spend some time with. If I had time. (sigh)

  14. Jenners says:

    Sounds like an interesting combination of history and fairy tale.

  15. The Nazis and a Cinderella story are an interesting combination. You know I want to read this one!

  16. Alex says:

    “for the intelligent woman with the flu.” – I love that!

    I have this one on the TBR, waiting for a rainy day when a good dosage of comfort is needed 🙂

  17. Jenny says:

    “For the intelligent woman with the flu” is perfect. That’s exactly the sort of circumstance under which I would read an Eva Ibbotson romance.

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