Long Version of Review:
If you have read any of my previous reviews of books by Eva Ibbotson, you already more or less know the plot: The protagonist is a young, beautiful girl who is well-born but eschews her status as part of her love and appreciation for the little joys in life, including domesticity, nature, and rewards reaped from kindness. She is loved by all, including the surly, the old, the young, the birds and the bees. Along comes a princely type who falls for her goodness and simplicity as well as her beauty. Alas, he believes he belongs to another, and she believes he belongs to another, and they go their separate ways. But they never forget each other, and in the end, their love triumphs.
Ibbotson’s books are very, very similar. And yet, there are enough differences in each to make the predictability seem familiar and endearing rather than annoying. It’s amazing to me that this is the case, and yet, other Ibbotson fans concur: we love Eva Ibbotson in spite of the fact that we can safely and reliably predict the arc of every single story.
In A Song For Summer, Ellen Carr, in her early twenties, fits the usual Ibbotson profile of small, thin, blonde, and beautiful. Additionally, she has big brown eyes, and is known for being both clever and kind. (In a departure from other Ibbotson heroines, Ellen is not ditsy.) Ellen answers an ad to take a domestic post in Corinthia in the southern end of Austria, in a school at Schloss Hallendorf specializing in music, dama, and dance. (Ibbotson’s books tend to be set in castles, and always involve music, opera, and ballet.) There are flowers everywhere, tended by the mysterious, kind, resourceful and handsome Marek Tarnowsky, age 29, who looks like every other Ibbotson hero: broad-shouldered, with blunt, irregular features, and penetrating eyes.
Marek turns out to be leading a secret life – one both exceptional and noble: he is helping stranded European Jews escape from the Nazis. Moreover, he is a music prodigy. And yet, here he is doing landscaping at the castle. Ellen suspects there is more to Marek than meets the eye, and doesn’t shirk from danger when she too has an opportunity to help save Jews. There are some notable moments in this book when both Marek and Ellen work to rescue the talented violinist Isaac Meierwitz. Marek claims that Isaac is his friend and he “can’t allow” Ellen to take this risk:
“‘Don’t!’ She turned on him furiously. ‘Just don’t dare to say this is no job for a woman. My mother and my aunts didn’t get kicked by police horses and thrown to the ground [in the struggle for women’s rights] for you to go around treating me as an imbecile. Furthermore, if war comes no one will bother to distinguish between men and women. Ask the women of Guernica whether anyone cared what sex they were when they bombed the marketplace. Getting Isaac out is part of fighting Hitler and I won’t be left out of it.’”
I liked the fact that Ibbotson balanced Ellen’s love of cooking and cleaning and sewing with a firm commitment to rights for women.
At one point, Isaac wonders why their contacts – religious Jews – would take risks on Isaac who was practically an atheist:
“But he knew. He himself had scarcely set foot in a synagogue; his mother had been baptized, but Hitler had created a new kind of Jew – someone who existed to be hunted and killed – and [therefore] these unknown men had accepted him as a brother.”
I thought that was an exceptionally perceptive observation.
Isaac, like everyone else, falls in love with Ellen, with “her strange mixture of softness and steel.” But it is only Marek that she wants, which leads us to:
Short Version of Review (with thanks to the longer poem by Pablo Neruda):
“if each day,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.
From “If You Forget Me” by Pablo Neruda”
Evaluation: This book has all the usual Eva Ibbotson bare bones, fleshed out by a story of courage and enduring love. I adore all of her books. In spite of their sameness, each one has a bit of something new, and both parts are equally appealing.
Paperback edition published in the U.S. by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2007