If you have read Ibbotson or reviews of Ibbotson, you know her plots are pretty much alike. And even though this book is aimed at a middle grade audience, it contains the same elements as her books for adults, minus the grown-up romance. Before I go any further, I should say that the reason I and others keep reading these books, is that, although similar, they are delightful subverted fairytales that remain enchanting no matter how many retellings.
This story is set in 1908 Vienna, with its ornate architecture, sumptuous pastries, ubiquitous music, the Prater royal park containing the highest “Ferris Wheel” in Europe, and the famous Spanish riding school with its dancing white Lippizaner stallions. If you have never seen Vienna, it’s no matter: Ibbotson brings to life for you, describing the cinnamon and coffee smells, and the marzipan confections, and the sights and sounds along the River Danube. In particular, we get to know the neighborhood of Annika, a foundling adopted twelve years earlier by two employees of three eccentric professors who live not far from the Emperor’s Palace: the cook, Ellie, and housemaid, Sigrid. They become parents to Annika. But everyone in the household, as well as in the neighborhood, adores Annika.
Annika’s life is happy and satisfying, especially after she befriends an elderly woman across the square who tells her stories of her former life as “La Rondine,” a star of the stage. When La Rondine finally passes away, Annika is bereft.
Moreover, what Ellie fears the most finally comes true, as an elegant woman sweeps into their lives one day, coming to reclaim her long lost daughter Annika.
Discussion: As I mentioned above (and in previous posts), the bones of every adult book by Eva Ibbotson is the same, centering on a lovely fresh and innocent young girl instantly beloved by all who meet her; a terrible misunderstanding that pulls her apart from all she loves; and an ending in which 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 reflect the author’s passions: opera, ballet, art, and in this book, the Lippizaners stallions.
Another common element of Ibbotson books is the way in which the “have-nots” are the virtuous characters, and the members of the elite are generally bad. Ibbotson displays a great deal of sensitivity toward the injustices of class discrimination, but unfortunately, she somewhat undermines her case with the Cinderella-style endings to her stories. Not only do the poor kitchen maids end up princesses of some sort or other, but also they come into the means that enable them to live like the upper classes. (Needless to say, the heroine is, in all the books, more than generous to her previous detractors.) I’m not saying it is a bad thing for the heroine to end up rich and titled, but neither is it a total subversion. Rather, Ibbotson reinforces the valorization of the very social institutions she made so much effort to revile as effete and damaging to the qualities so valued in the heroine and her ilk (such as compassion, kindness, industriousness, generosity , etc.).
One other quibble I had with this particular book is very spoilery, so I shall leave it to you whether to mouse over it or not. Mouse over now to see spoilery comments:
Annika is raised by two loving women who bring her up to be the lovely young woman she is. But she dreams of her real mother coming and when Edeltraut von Tannenberg enters her life, she gives nary a thought to Ellie and Sigrid in her joy of having her dream come true. When it turns out this woman is liar and a thief, Annika still sticks by her:
“Perhaps people who had always had mothers felt differently, but to her, her mother’s arrival, after the years of daydreaming about her, had been a miracle. She could not now turn her back on the person who had given her life.”
It is only when she finds out, finally, that the woman is also an imposter, and isn’t her actual mother at all, that she returns to Ellie and Sigrid. Again, Ibbotson cannot make a break with convention, and take the subversive leap of faith that sometimes “families” aren’t comprised of blood relations at all.
End of spoilery comments.
Evaluation: I loved this book now, as an adult, and I know I would have loved it even more had I been at that age when it would have created a new world for me, much as The Secret Garden did. There is suspense, some mysteries to solve, and some very lovable side characters, especially Annika’s young friends. I especially enjoyed learning more about the Lippizaner stallions. (They still perform – you can learn more about them on the official website, here.) Highly recommended for you and the middle graders in your lives!
Note: The book also contains intermittent illustrations by Kevin Hawkes.
Published by Dutton Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2004