Here's a new book to add to my favorites list. I absolutely loved it -- so much so that, as soon as I finished reading it I flipped right back to the first page and began again! I can't remember the last time I did that. The first time through I was reading so voraciously, wanting to lurch ahead and find out what happened next, that I needed to read it again to catch the nuance of the clever, beautiful writing, and also because there are so many scenes to savor. It's also one of those books that makes you daydream and fill in, in your mind, the scenes between the scenes.
It's called A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotsen and you need to ignore the ever-so-slightly-cheesy cover. It doesn't capture the feel of the book at all. It opens in 1912 Cambridge, England, in the life of Harriet Morton, daughter of the priggish Merlin Professor of Classics. She's been raised by her father and her dreadful spinster aunt in a cold, dark, penny-pinching home of holdover Victorian values and though she's a very bright girl she's been taken out of school (her father doesn't approve of girls at university) and the only pleasure left in her life is her lessons at the dance school of an aging Russian ballerina. Her family is also trying to marry her off to a zoologist she does not love, and she's trying to resist but there is always a temptation, because it would mean escape from her dreary home. What other escape can there possibly be for her, when all else is denied?
Well, escape comes in the form of a visiting Russian ballet company owner recruiting dancers for a South American tour. (Can I just say: a period novel about a Russian ballet company steaming up the Amazon? Upon reading that description, I knew at once I had to have this book!) He invites Harriet to join them but she knows her father will never give her permission for something so audacious. So. . . she runs away!
I don't want to tell too much, but I will say that it is incredibly romantic, and even a little sexy. Sexier than most YA novels, more like an adult novel in some ways (it doesn't give details or anything, it just goes farther into sensual territory than most YAs). The writing is sharp, clever, and totally evocative of place, whether it is an aging English manor house whose gardens have gone to seed, or the voluptuous ripeness of the Amazon bursting with macaws and scarlet ibises. And Eva Ibbotsen is such a smart writer. That was what grabbed me and hooked me in so quickly. The book is full of the kind of witty humor you long to turn to someone and share, but you don't because you know it is too much a part of the book; they wouldn't understand it out of context. But you so wish you could share the cleverness aloud. And there are such wonderful details that make the book and the time period and the characters come alive! I loved that the old accompanist uses a ballet slipper as an ashtray. I loved the scenes in the zoology lab at Cambridge. I loved that Harriet's life essentially changed forever because of a serendiptious meeting in the center of a maze.
Thinking, as I am lately, about things I want to say in my SCBWI presentation, I couldn't help examining what it is about Harriet that makes you want to be her. In all books, to a degree, you consent to slip into the character's skin and live there for a while, but it is only in some books that you want to staythere. Here, I think part of what makes you want to live this girl's life is the romantic aspect. I think it's what has made the Twilight books so successful too: it's the notion of being a relatively ordinary girl who becomes the object of the genuine love, passion, and loyalty of an extraordinary man. In Twilight, what teenage girl does not want to be adored by Edward Cullen? It's such a fantasy. Well, I bought into that somewhat in the first book, but the Twilight spell has since been broken for me. But in A Company of Swans, you will want Rom Verney to be real. The romance is so compelling.
Ballet, the Amazon, sensual romance, steamships, country estates, tempermental ballet divas, and more. It's a wonderful, juicy world and a totally delightful book. I will be getting myself some more Eva Ibbotsen books. I don't know how I've missed her before now. This book was originally published in 1985, so I was about 13, just the right age for it, but I lived overseas and had scant access to books -- just what I could get at the piddly school library or the military PX, so I'm not surprised I missed it. Just makes it that much more fun to discover it now.
Besides Eva Ibbotsen, I've found another "new" author (new to me that is): Jo Walton.
Jim bought me Farthing for Christmas (he's an extremely good book-giver, always finding things I've never heard of that are right down my alley, and this was one). It's a murder mystery set in a world in which the United States never joined World War II and the British were forced to make a truce with Hitler. In this post-war Britain then, Jews still have some rights -- though they hang precariously in the balance -- but in the rest of Europe the Holocaust has essentially continued unabated. This "peace" was pioneered by a conservative political party, and it is at the great country estate of its main proponents, that the murder takes place. It is altnerately narrated by the daughter of the estate, who has "disgraced" herself by marrying a Jew, and the police inspector investigating the murder. The political situation is always in the background like a nasty shadow -- the book is really a fast-paced murder mystery with excellent writing and intriguing characters. It just happens to take place in this awful imagined world. There is another book, Ha'Penny, out that is set in that world, and a third on the way in the fall.
And Jo Walton doesn't just write murder mysteries! She has a series of Arthurian books out, and she has this:
Jo Walton describes Tooth and Claw one as "A Victorian novel of manners in which all the characters are dragons and eat each other." Ha ha! And that really does describe it. Jim got this for me at the library after I loved Farthing and to be honest, I didn't really think I'd get into it. I hate to say that, because so many people say the same thing about Blackbringer -- because they don't think they'll be interested in a book about faeries. I guess we have our prejudices about books and movies. We think we know what we like. But how many times has it happened that something you didn't think you'd be interested in totally grabbed you? To me, it happens all the time, and it is entirely dependent on the quality of the writing.
This is a great book for would-be fantasy writers to read, to see the creation of an entire world and culture that, however unbelievable it should be, nevertheless enfolds you completely and makes you fully submit to believing it while you're in it. It's about the way the five children of the old dragon Bon Agornin cope after his death. The characters, though dragons, make you care about them every bit as much as human characters, even if they do eat each other!
Oh, and go check out Jim's tiger art. Beautiful!