Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Countess Below Stairs (Eva Ibbotson)

Why did it take me years to find Eva Ibbotson? After spending an afternoon with her A Countess Below Stairs (also known as The Secret Countess), I was determined to find more of her books. Powerbooks carries her children's books, but of her adult titles, I could only find A Song for Summer, and I'm not really in the mood for a World War II novel.

What was it with A Countess Below Stairs that drew me to the story? The premise is a fairy-tale. Young Anna Grazinsky escapes the revolution that destroys her pampered life in Russia and finds herself in the employ of the soon-to-be-married Earl of Westerholme. Please. We know how this will end, right? But Ms. Ibbotson draws a very charming heroine in Anna, all grace and smiles and never-say-die attitude. While one may complain about the flatness of her characters (the good guys are unerringly good, the bad guys are comically bad, and there are really no surprises here), they somehow seem fresh under Ms. Ibbotson's pen. Muriel Hardwicke, the ambitious woman to whom young Rupert is engaged, is obsessed with eugenics and makes for a fine caricature of one both deplorable and hilarious. Ollie Byrne, the Westerholme's crippled neighbor, is simply adorable whether she's bursting with laughter or sulking in her room. Proom, the kind yet rigid butler, is as enterprising as he is observant, the hidden knight with shining cutlery. And Ms. Ibbotson even throws in a dog.

Countess is a feel-good romance, a historical fairy-tale, plain and simple. A romance fan won't be able to keep from smiling throughout the read. It's no Gosford Park, but readers will get a feel of the class system at work at the Westerholmes' as well as its surrounding households. It's no Pride and Prejudice, but it creates a satisfying romance amid the social commentary. The novel is infused with Anna's innocence and good nature, that somehow it's enough to leave you thinking that all is right with the world.

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