Thursday, September 9, 2010

Guest Review: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

Okay, today is our second guest submission for consideration to be a new Blue Bookcase writer. Please give a warm welcome to Meagan, and for those who aren't caught up on our new call for writers, visit this post for more details. Let us know what you think about Meagan's style and if you want to see more from her!

I used to describe myself as a Bibliophilic Anglophile who could herself get back to England a lot faster if she didn't spend so much money on books, but a bookstore addiction is a hard habit to break, so it took me a few years to return to the Motherland. Now I live in London where I work, go to graduate school, and, because of the joys of the London Underground, go through several books a month while traveling back and forth from the British Library where I work on my dissertation. And by 'work' I mean procrastinate as long as possible...

Published: 1986 (recently reissued under the title The Secret Countess)

It's about: Anna is a young girl who grew up in the privileged world of the Russian Aristocracy at the turn of the twentieth century. Just one year shy of her d├ębut, World War I breaks out and Anna's father is killed in Prussia. Soon afterwards the Bolshevik revolution begins, and Anna's family flees their looted Russian palace. Entrusting their priceless jewels to a servant who disappears, the Grazinskys slowly make their way towards London, arriving soon after the armistice with nearly nothing. Anna decides she must work, and, armed with Selina Strickland's Domestic Compendium, a three-volume work on the etiquette of serving in a great house, gets a job as a temporary housemaid at Mersham, a famous country estate in Wiltshire. Despite the hopelessly outdated Compendium, Anna proves to be a hard worker and settles comfortably into her new life below stairs.

Rupert Frayne served as a pilot in WWI before being wounded. In a military hospital, he meets the beautiful, orphaned heiress Muriel Hardwicke and they become engaged. When his wounds are healed, Rupert returns to Mersham, having inherited the estate, along with the title of the Seventh Earl of Westerholme. Despite his work in setting the estate to rights and preparing for his upcoming wedding to Muriel, Rupert becomes increasingly curious about his new foreign housemaid who is obviously not what she seems. Anna in turn finds it increasingly difficult to hide her aristocratic background around the Earl, and as she spends more time with Lord Westerholme, that's not the only secret she has to keep. A cast of characters from a body-building footman to the butler's flowerpot-throwing invalid mother round out this story in a delightfully enchanting way.

I thought: Eva Ibbotson is one of my favorite YA authors, and this book tops my go-to list for a quick and entertaining read. The Countess Below Stairs is the first of her books that I have read, but after finishing I quickly hunted down and devoured the rest of them. Ibbotson's writing style is positively delicious. Her novels are very grounded in history, but the characters she throws into historical events border on fantastic. Liberties are definitely taken in blurring social boundaries, but the result is charming. The heroes and heroines are bright and colorful, but at the end of the day simply good, and the villains evoke just the right amount of dislike without being depressingly criminal.

If you expect to be surprised by the conclusion of this novel (or any of Eva Ibbotson's other books), you're in for a disappointment. The Countess Below Stairs is textbook formulaic and the end can be predicted almost from the first page. However, it is how Ibbotson weaves that predictable narrative that makes her such a favorite with me. With a single sentence she can create an intricate and completely believable back story, and every pages oozes evidence of her research and attention to detail. The reader truly gets to know the characters, and develops a vested interest in their triumphs and tragedies. That Ibbotson herself was a war refugee, having fled Austria when Hitler came into power, lends a realistic depth to Anna's sadness and nostalgia, as well as her determination to make the best of the hand life has dealt her. I literally sighed when I finished the last page, then immediately turned back to the beginning and read it again.

Verdict: Put it on the shelf. Then go and pick up every single one of her other books.

Warnings: Nothing that I noticed. One of the best things I like about (most) of Eva Ibbotsen's books is that they are refreshingly free of pretty much anything controversial.

Suggestion: If you're into audio books, Davina Porter does a phenomenal job narrating this one.

Favorite excerpts: Honestly, I could just quote the entire book here, that's how much I'm in love with the writing style, but here are a couple representative gems:

"More than most great houses, Mersham had given its life’s blood to the Kaiser’s war. Upstairs it had taken Lord George, the heir, who fell at Ypres six months after his father, the sixth earl, succumbed to a second heart attack. Below stairs it had drained away almost every able-bodied man and few of those who left were destined to return. A groom had fallen on the Somme, an under-gardener at Jutland; the hall boy, who had lied about his age, was blown up at Verdun a week before his eighteenth birthday."

"This is Anna, my Lord. She is from Russia, and has joined us temporarily. Rupert only had time to register a pair of intense dark eyes in a narrow thoughtful face before the new girl curtsied. All the girls had bobbed curtsies as he passed, but Rupert was about to encounter for the first time this weapon of social intercourse in Anna Grazinsky's hands. One arm flew gracefully outward and up like an ascending dove, her right foot elegantly flexed, drew a wide arc on the rich carpet, and she sank slowly, deeply, and utterly to the ground."