Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A Song for Summer - Eva Ibbotson

We've been waiting since Thursday for more information about lock down in Leicester, only to eventually hear today that the important things (still no meeting people in their houses or gardens, and no arranging to meet people in pubs etc.) are staying the same - and why that couldn't have been announced last week I have no idea. I can now get my nails done (never have), a tattoo (I think, but it's not on my to do list) or go to an outdoor swimming pool in the city (we don't have one of those either). It's wearing and I'm tired of it, the constant waiting for news or clarification also plays hell with my ability to concentrate, it took days to find a book that I could concentrate on for more than 2 pages.

The book I eventually found was Eva Ibbotson's 'A Song For Summer' which I remember buying 2 or 3 years ago for some light summer reading and then being a bit put off by the cover which makes my copy look like the target audience is very young teens. A bit of a trawl around suggests that Ibbotson's not for children's books haven't been especially well served by their covers in the last few years - although the currant crop of monotone photographs of young women are fairly good.

I didn't read Ibbotson as a child, which I think might have been my loss, but she never came my way. A good few years ago I did read 'The Secret Countess' but didn't blog about it. I remember enjoying it but not much more. Still she's one of those writers with a hard core of fans who's taste I normally find reliable and by the time I got to page 4 I felt like I was winning. I started the book on my way to bed and finished it the next day and am thinking I need to buy another emergency Ibbotson for the next weekend the government chooses to spoil with indecision.

Having just looked her up I realise why I didn't read Ibbotson as a child, I knew she was born in 1925, but hadn't appreciated how late in life she started writing. Most of her books came in the 1990's and she seems to have been working up until she died in 2010. I had checked before I started reading and 'A Song For Summer' came out on 1997, when it wouldn't have had anything like the same appeal for me that it does now.

Ibbotson was 72 when this was published, and looking back on her war time experience, in some ways it's tempting to compare her to Mary Wesley who produced most of her work at a similar age, and who I read a lot of around the mid 90's, but Ibbotson is funnier, and probably kinder (it's too long since I read one, and I haven't read enough of the other to be categorical about it).

In 'A Song For Summer' Ellen Carr, bought up by her retired suffragette mother and aunts, turns (somewhat to their dismay) to the domestic arts rather than the glittering career they had hoped for. In 1937 she swaps London for a job in an Austrian School, partly because she wants to find some flowers she's been told about and she understands that there might not be much time to do it in before war comes. The school is eccentric but Ellen is beloved by almost all who know her, and falling in live with Marek, the groundsman.

In the best romantic tradition she's not 'just' a cook housekeeper, and he's more than a gardener who teaches a bit of fencing. Dangerous things are afoot, and there's no shortage of adventure and misunderstanding. If it sometimes seems a bit far fetched it doesn't take much to remember that there are far more extraordinary and entirely true stories of both atrocity and heroism to come out of the second world war.

Vienna isn't a big part of the plot in this book, but how the few mentions of it made me long to return to that City and walk its streets, or sit in its cafes drinking coffee, eating cake, and maybe reading something just like this because I'm on holiday and it doesn't have to be serious. The Austrian parts of the book are beautifully evocative and come alive in a way that the brief mentions of wartime London do not - but then they're not as important so it doesn't matter.

There's no smooth path for Marek and Ellen, and whilst there are elements that follow the traditional Mills and Boon sort of formula this isn't at all what that this book is. I sort of understand why Ibbotson's adult work is primarily marketed at young adults, but genuinely I think these are books for middle aged women (like myself) however much teen reader might enjoy them.

Ibbotson is never explicit, but she's frank about sex, especially disappointing and ridiculous sex in a way that I absolutely associate with older women. It is over all the humour which made reading this such a delight. I underlined the end of a paragraph when another of Ellen's would be lovers muses in complete good faith that "Sometimes he felt that that was what he had been born for - explaining things to the girl he loved so much."

It would be a syrupy sort of thing without the humour, but as it is it's a delightful comfort read of a book. The sort of thing to reach for when times are bad or you feel under the weather and you just want to shut the world out for a bit and dream of Vienna and things turning out alright in the end.


  1. I adore Ibbotson and even though this is my least favourite of her adult novels I still love it. Marek is ridiculous in that he is excels at seemingly everything but he wins points for being Czech and having one of my favourite names (also for allowing Ibbotson to make defenestration jokes). What I love the most about this book, and the reason I escape back into it over and over again, is the setting. How I long to visit the schloss on the lake! Ibbotson's Vienna is always alluring but it is her vision of Carinthia that I dream of most.

    1. Her Carinthia is almost to perfect to contemplate whilst I'm stuck at home. In a lot of ways Marek and Ellen are the least interesting characters - the conventional hero and heroine who you know everything must eventually work out for. My favourite happy ending was the one that Kendrick and Tamara got after being the butt of all the best jokes. Another author might have left them unhappily ever after but she's too generous for that. I have Madensky Square and am trying to decide which other Ibbotson I might get for emergency reading. I don't think I could binge on her but she feels like a good standby to have.

  2. My favourite Ibbotson is Madensky Square. I think you would like it as it is all set in Vienna in 1912!

    1. It's the other one that I have, and I'm lookin g forward to reading it soonish - I'm committed to a couple of things first, and I'm not sure how much Ibbotson I want to read back to back anyway - but the idea of having it waiting as a treat to brighten up a dull day is very encouraging.