The Reluctant Heiress by Eva Ibbotson

Tessa has been raised to be a princess in the grand Austrian style but after losing her parents and most of the family fortune, she finds herself joyously happy to be working (for free) for the International Opera Company as a under-wardrobe mistress. Embracing her new life, Tessa feels only slight pains of regret when her aged aunts inform her of the proposed purchase of her family estate, the castle Pfaffenstein, by the millionaire Guy Farne for his fiance. Only this fiance is more in love with titles and money than Guy, but since she's so dang beautiful, he kind of missed that little detail. Tessa (of course) is awed by handsome Guy who helps her out of a few tight spots but it's not until she unknowingly returns to Pfaffenstein with her opera company that she discovers how connected she is to Guy.

The best part of any Eva Ibbotson novel is her introduction of the principle characters. Each has a richly developed history with personality traits (sometimes quirks) and anecdotal references to their youth. Guy's story is one of those standout characters to me - Ms. Ibbotson's descriptions of Guy morphing from a foundling who would fight against perceived injustice into a successful man had me rooting for him early on. And just like Martha Hodge, his foster mother, I too was enchanted with his changing eye color - green for unsettled and sad and brilliant blue for joy. Here's one fantastic description of Guy during the first time he meets Mrs. Hodge.
Guy was led in, glowering, and stood before her. At the time of this encounter he was six and a half years old. Entirely without hope or expectation, he looked at Mrs. Hodge. Small for his age, with the extraordinary air of compactness that characterized him, his chin lifted to receive the information that he was not acceptable, he waited. His knees, scrubbed to a godly cleanliness, shone scarred and raw; his naturally springy hair had been slicked down with several applications of Vaseline and water and stuck relentlessly to his scalp.

Mrs. Hodge looked at him and felt frail and tired and more mortal than usual. Force emanated from this strange-looking boy as visibly as beams from a lighthouse. It was impossible; she would never be able to cope with him.

The boy waited. His eyes, strangely and slantingly set above high cheekbones, were a curious deep green which sent Mrs. Hodge in search of images that were beyond her: of malachite, of the opaque and clouded waters of the Nile.

Silence fell. Only the sudden descent of his left sock as the garter snapped revealed the tension that the child was concealing.

It was entirely without volition that the words Mrs. Hodge now uttered issued from her mouth.

"All right," she said, "I'll have 'im. I'll give it a try."

Pretty dang heartwarming huh? Underneath all that emotion is some beautiful language too: "opaque and clouded waters of the Nile"... perfectly descriptive.

Even though I enjoy her stories, particularity A Song for Summer, I sometimes wish Ms. Ibbotson's character's could experience love without all the heartbreak. But one of her true talents lie in being able to express the hopeless pain stemming from unrealized love. Tessa is a model of heartbreak when she discovers has no chance with Guy, so maybe you gotta stick with what you do well - but things do work out for her characters in the end. It just usually takes a long time and plenty of shuffling of partners.

I've come to expect at least one nasty fiance and one surprise or disastrous wedding in each of her books. On the flip side, I also expect plenty of prose on the subject of music, dance or literature and heroines who are almost always super-humanly sweet. Even with these conventions, I still loved Guy and Tessa's story. Although I wish I could have seen them together more often, their shared passion for music and equality helped to create a pretty solid relationship for me. Tessa could have had a little more backbone occasionally, but since I had just read a couple hundred pages about how intimidating Guy can be, I can understand her reticence to speak up for herself at times. Other than that, it was a fabulous stroll through the musical paradise of Vienna.


Unknown said...

Hi :)
Thank you for the great review.
I love the cover for The Reluctant Heiress. And the excerpt was great.
Thanks again,

Michelle said...

RKCharron - so glad you liked it - Aren't her covers always fantastic? And that was one of my favorite scenes with Guy too.