Review of “A Company of Swans” by Eva Ibbotson

This book follows the usual Ibbotson formula for Cinderella-style romances but this time much of it takes place in Manaus on the Amazon, rather than in Britain or Vienna. Manaus, Brazil and its famed opera house will be familiar to readers of The State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, but Ibbotson’s Amazon is a paradise rather than a dark and threatening milieu as in Patchett.

It is 1912 and Harriet Morton, 18, whose mother died when she was two, lives in Cambridge, England with her much older, narrow-minded, and unloving father, as well as his sister, her Aunt Louisa, who resents Harriet and treats her poorly. Her only joy is taking ballet at the Sonia Lavarre Academy of Dance. One day one of Madame’s old friends arrives, a Monsieur Dubrov, looking for outstanding pupils to join his corps de ballet soon traveling to Manaus to perform. He is intrigued by Harriet, and invites her, but Harriet knows she will not be allowed to go. By chance, however, she befriends a little boy, Henry, who is obsessed with the Amazon, and desperately wants Harriet to go there and help find his uncle, rumored to be there. Harriet, like any Ibbotson heroine, could never deny the requests of a little child.

Harriet claims to be going to stay with a school chum, and joins the Dubrov Ballet Company. The opening night in Manaus, she catches the eye of Rom Verney, the chairman of the Opera House trustees, and coincidentally the very man she promised Henry she would find. Rom is rich and charming, but isn’t he rumored to be in love with someone else?

Discussion: The scaffolding of every adult book by Eva Ibbotson is the same:

1. a lovely fresh and innocent young girl instantly beloved by all who meet her
2. encounters an older, wealthy, unmarried man (with inner pain but good at heart) who becomes convinced she is what he needs
3. but there is at least one terrible misunderstanding that pulls them apart
4. until the very end when suddenly the clouds of misunderstanding break and love conquers all

On top of this underlying and pretty much unerring plan, the distinctive elements of each book change and tend to reflect the author’s passions: opera, ballet, classical literature, and other arts.

Does that mean the books are too predictable to read more than one? Absolutely not. That is, absolutely they are predictable but each one of them is still a joy.

In this book, I loved the exotic setting of Manaus with its riotous color and picturesque foreign landscape, and the details of the rigors of ballet training that are so lovingly depicted. And as is very much the usual case with Ibbotson, the side characters are memorably and delightfully drawn, from young Henry, whom Harriet befriends, to the imperious but so understandable Simonova, the aging star of the ballet company. And the romance in this book is more fully explored than in the others by Ibbotson, and so enchantingly!

The famed Manaus Opera House

Though set in 1912, there isn’t much to the historical fiction aspects of this book, unlike Ibbotson’s others. But again, no complaints – the story is pleasurable regardless.

Evaluation: This book follows the usual Ibbotson formula for romance, which means it is a bit of a Cinderella story. But I hope no one holds predictability against it. Like Ibbotson’s other books, it is engaging and endearing, and the character portrayals, especially those of the minor characters, are especially well-done.

Rating: 4/5

First published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s Press, 1985, and re-published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2007


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14 Responses to Review of “A Company of Swans” by Eva Ibbotson

  1. Barbara says:

    This sounds like a charming story. (Are you sick or did you need a break from packing?) I know nothing about Brazil and very little about ballet, so I might enjoy this when I need a break from more dark or educational stuff.

  2. After all your glowing reviews, I have yet to try this author. Shame on me!

  3. Care says:

    Dare I say that I am suffering from “premise denial” after reading the formula for an Eva Ibbotson book?! (see Jenny’s books if you want to read her thoughts on premise denial)

  4. Bookworm1858 says:

    This is my favorite Ibbotson, probably because of the ballet and the romance against which I am powerless to resist.

  5. Yep, your love for this author has me wanting to dedicate a few weeks to just reading all of the books you’ve reviewed of hers to date. I honestly thought she wrote just stories with magical elements in them and the covers I have on the shelf are cutesy-cutesy. I think I will enjoy them!!

  6. Jenny says:

    Hahahaha, can I just say that Care is awesome for picking up my term in this fashion? Even if totally wrong about Eva Ibbotson because she is marvelous and her books fill my heart with joy?

    (I just lent Journey to the River Sea to my coworker, and I have high hopes that I will soon have an Eva Ibbotson convert.)

  7. This is where to find Jenny’s definition, for those of you interested: As I replied to Care “ORDINARILY, I would have the same problem.  But there is something so sweet about Ibbotson’s books, even while you may be thinking “shouldn’t I be saying eueueu?”

  8. You may have lost me at Cinderella….

  9. It takes real talent to use the same basic book plots repeatedly and still make the story charming and lovely. I just picked up a collection of three of her children’s books. I will definitely keep her other books in mind as well because I like a good happy story once in a while.

  10. Jenners says:

    Her scaffolding sounds like the bulding blocks for almost every romance I ever read. Still, a good author can make even the most bare bones scaffolding look like that opera house. And yes … it doesn’t quite sound like the same place featured in State of Wonder.

  11. Iris says:

    I have yet to read one of Eva Ibbotson’s books for adults/YA. I have two waiting at home, but now I wish I had picked up A Company of Swans as well. Ballet! Oh well, next time..

    It’s interesting that you mention that it’s set in Manaus, Brazil and its famed opera house. I remember that there’s a opera house being mentioned in “Journey to the River Sea” (which is set in Brazil as well) too, I wonder if it’s the same?

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    The Cinderella story never gets old.

  13. bookingmama says:

    You’ve sold me! Looks amazing!

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