Mar 6, 2012

The Top Ten Reasons I Would Bring Along an Eva Ibbotson Book if I'm Ever Stranded on a Desert Island

While Eva Ibbotson is known as a successful children’s book author (J.K. Rowling is thought to have borrowed heavily from her, especially when it came to the idea for Platform 9 3/4m as Eva had previously released a novel called The Secret of Platform 13.), she has also written some YA titles, which have been slowly rereleased over the past few years.* And they are - I swear - the best books ever. Here's why:

1. The prose.

Read this paragraph from The Morning Gift:

"A vulture hung like a nail in the sky. The bells of browsing cattle came from a distant meadow, and the wail of a flute. Quin closed his eyes."

You know a description is good when you're kicking yourself for not having written it first. (If, in my next book, something is hanging like "a nail in the sky," then for god's sake, keep your mouth shut.) All of her prose is like this - lush and casually beautiful.

2. Girl knows her Schubert from her Mozart.

And her Freud from her Jung. And basically everything there is to know about science and math and art and politics. These books are smart. Intimidatingly so. Nothing is dumbed down for the reader: she just forges steadily on, letting you either swim along with the reference or sink rapidly. This can be a bit embarrassing when it takes me an hour of googling to try and figure out what she's talking about, but I appreciate it nonetheless. 

I recently heard John Green say somewhere that he doesn't think it's necessary to dumb down books for teens because they can clearly handle it - they're reading harder books in school than most adults typically read. I completely agree. As a teen, I was just starting to learn how to open myself up to thinking about literature in a specific way. That sense of discovery didn't make me a bad reader - it probably made me more of a thoughtful reader than I've been in years. And Eva's books might be a little tough, but they're certainly not boring. (Christ, I still can't get through Crime and Punishment.)

Here's a sample passage from A Company of Swans:

"In this cold, dark house filled with the smell of boiled fish and the sniffs of depressed housemaids, the professor’s pretty young wife wilted and drooped. Sophie saw little of her husband for the professor wined, dined, and had his being in the comfort of his college, returning to Scroope Terrace only to sleep. Though presumably acquainted with bright-eyed Nausicaa laughing with her maidens on an Aegean shore, with marvelous Sappho and her “love-loosened limbs” – and indeed with all those gallant girls who had welcomed Jupiter in the guise of Swan or Bull or Shower of Gold – the Merlin Professor of Classical Studies was a dry and narrow-minded pedant. His published work consisted mainly of splenetic articles in which he vilified those who dared to disagree with his view that Odes VI and VII in the epinikia of Bacchylides had been incorrectly separated, and his lectures (from which all women were rigorously excluded) were confidently regarded as being not only the most boring in the university, but the most boring in the world."

Umm - say, what? Even though I get about, oh, three of those references, it's still interesting, and kind of...funny.

3. Did I mention she's funny?

From The Morning Gift:

"Quin, meanwhile, was registering a number of features revealed by Ruth's skewered hair: ears...the curve of her jaw...and those vulnerable hollows at the back of the neck which prevent the parents of young children from murdering them."

And A Song For Summer:

"It had been a happy day. When she first came to Hallendorf she had been sure that Marek would help her and she had been right. He had helped her most truly and she was proud to have him for a friend. These warming and uplifting sentiments ceased abruptly two days later when he threw one of her children into the lake."

4. Her books are romantic without being in your face about it.

From The Reluctant Heiress:

"[Tessa] knew about phantom limbs: that the place where they had been went on aching even after they had been cut off. Her cheek, where the Englishman's fingers had been, did not exactly ache..but, very strangely, most felt."  

From The Morning Gift:

"'But we can still be friends, can't we? Later, I mean, after the divorce?' Quin did not answer. The wine seemed to have gone to Ruth's hair rather than her head: the golden locks shone and glinted, tendrils curved around the collar of her dress - one had come to rest in a whorl above her left breast - and her eyes were soft with dreams. Quin had friends, but they did not really look like that."

The realistic romances are so subtlely done that when you do get these fleeting moments they always feels important and moving, and I just want to reread each scene again and again. It's not over the top, but devastatingly lovely, and I end up falling so hard for these couples and their stories. 

5. Her main characters are kind of all the same, but I like it. 

Our heroines break down into two categories: one is the lovely, impestuous, vibrant girl (see A Countess Below Stairs and The Morning Gift). The other is the quieter, maybe plainer, but still riveting girl (A Song for Summer and A Company of Swans).

They're all smart and talented and sort of thoughtlessly charming. They end up making friends with sheep, knowing the life stories of everyone around them, and easily charming the hero's hard-to-win-over family. They're kind of like manic pixie dream girls who happen to know a lot about Goethe, pyschoanalysis and obscure opera. 

6. She's not afraid of sex.

Her characters usually get it on at some point. I'm down with this, mostly because I think sex is often treated either too flippantly in YA or too conservatively. The truth is that most teens are thinking about sex: either having it, or not having it, or being afraid of it, or worried about it, or excited about it. It should be dealt with - if it's organic to the story - and an experience an author should give weight to without pushing their own moral agenda (imho).

Eva handles her sex scenes by cutting to the window. Which is fine. We get all the morning after cuddling, and a lot of innuendo. But it's always very tastefully done, and the moment always feels right and true. Plus I respect that a women born in 1925 is not afraid of narratively going there, so to speak.

 7. There is always a lady villain we love to hate.

Our villainess is often beautiful and rich and occasionally thinks Hitler isn't doing such a bad job. This girl is nasty. She treats servants like crap and thinks puppies should be drowned. She's an insane diva and she's always after the guy for selfish, usually monetary or status-promoting reasons. The guy sees through her right away, and spends a big chunk of the book trying to figure out how to get rid of her so he can be with the heroine. At which point our villainess is humiliated in some deliciously satisfying way.

8. Her heroes are total alpha males. 

Older. Hot. Rich. Smart. Capable of seeing through bullshit immediately and acting on it accordingly. They're usually slightly taciturn, British, and a bit of a slow-burn on the romance front. A lot like Mr. Darcy, actually.

I would gladly take any of them off your hands, ladies. Not that you'd be willing to give them up. (And who can blame you?)

9. She really hates Hitler.

I know what you're thinking - doesn't everyone? But Eva REALLY hates Hitler. This probably has something to do with her Jewish family having to flee Vienna after he invaded, and seeing, firsthand, the destruction he caused. This is a theme that shows up in most of her books, and many of the stories are set in or around World War II. Hitler is always the big bad, and our hero is always vehemently opposed to facism.

10. In A Song for Summer, kids at an enlightened boarding school put on a Marxist play called, Abbatoir (french, for slaughterhouse). 

And it's about conditions and workers and animals at a slaughterhouse, based on Brecht's Saint Joan of the Slaughthouses. There's even a song called, "Song of Starvation," and a chorus of slaughtered cattle, pigs, and sheep. It's all completely absurd and hilarious. 

And I'll even give you a bonus reason:

11. I have a feeling Eva would be really fun to hang out with.

There's this quality to her prose that feels as though she laughed her way through the writing process. Her books are perfectly tongue-in-cheek without losing any emotional resonance. Not an easy feat for a writer, trust me.

From The Morning Gift:

"Too late, Ruth realized where she was heading and looked with horror at her empty [wine] glass, experiencing the painful moment when it becomes clear that what has been drunk cannot be undrunk."

Funny and charming and true. The ultimate Eva.

The five books:

- A Song for Summer. An English girl moves to Austria to work at a boarding school, where she falls in love with the groundskeeper who’s in hiding (he’s actually a famous composer opposed to Hitler).

- A Company of Swans. A young English girl, extremely oppressed by her father and her aunt, dreams of becoming a ballerina. She runs away to join a troupe that’s touring the Amazon and falls in love with a wealthy local businessman (who has ties to her life in England).

- A Countess Below Stairs. A newly impoverished Russian countess is forced to take a housemaid position at an English country manor, where she meets and falls in love with one of the estate’s sons.

- The Morning Gift. A young Jewish girl becomes trapped in Vienna after Hitler invades. An English professor/scientist rescues her by obtaining a visa through a marriage of convenience and reuniting her with her family in England. They find it difficult to get an annulment, and when she becomes his student by accident, they start to realize they don't want one. (This is the book that is most modeled after Eva's own life, as she too had to flee Vienna as a young girl. AND they're making it into a movie soon. Yay!)

- The Reluctant Heiress. A broke princess who loves the arts ends up hiding her identity and working as an errand girl for a theater. Then a business man hires the staff to put on an elaborate opera in order to impress the girl he thinks he loves. High jinks ensue as he and the princess start to fall for one another - and not the people they're supposed to be engaged to. 

So there you have it. If anyone made it through this whole post, I am SUPER impressed, and at this point you actually owe it to me - and yourself - to go buy all her books.

Here's a link.

*Disclaimer: I just found out that these titles were originally intended for adults. So I guess all that cutting-to-the-window stuff make a bit more sense considering Eva's a child of the '30s. (Not that being born in that era makes you prudish. If you disagree, then you clearly haven't met my grandma.) Still, kudos to whoever decided to market them as YA. I wholeheartedly approve.