Monday 30 June 2014

#CBR6 Book 61: "A Company of Swans" by Eva Ibbotson

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Eighteen year old Harriet Morton lives with her stuffy professor father and strict and joyless aunt in Cambridge. Her only chance to escape the drudgery of her life is through books or the weekly ballet lessons that her father inexplicably lets her take. When she is offered a position with a travelling ballet troupe going to perform Swan Lake in a remote city up the Amazon river, but denied permission by her father, she rebels and runs away.

When the troupe arrive in Manaus in South America, Harriet has become fully accepted among the dancers of the troupe, and even the prima ballerina, Madame Simonova is impressed with her self-effacing good nature and her work ethic. While she's neither particularly pretty or vivacious, she's loyal and kind and catches the eye of Rom Verney, probably the richest man in Manaus. She tries to persuade him to go home to England to take care of his family estate, Stavely Hall, and his young nephew, not realising the intricacies of the family drama that made Verney leave and go into exile in the Amazon in the first place.

There are complications when Harriet's would-be fiancee arrives, sent by her angry father, to take her back to England. Verney's recently widowed sister-in-law also arrives to woo him back to England, and is none to happy to see the man she intends to charm, captivated by a young nobody from a ballet company.

Which Witch was one of my favourite books as a child and I was delighted when I discovered that Ibbotson had written a number of romances for Young Adults. The romance in this book is fairly innocent as these things go, although I was very amused to see some reviewers on Goodreads appalled because there is pre-marital sex in the book (all of it between chapters), and that Harriet seems to suddenly alter her personality from a good, responsible and chaste young lady to someone who will willingly let herself be seduced, revelling in becoming a fallen woman. I felt that the development of Harriet's character was really well done, and while she's so good and kind and sweet that you almost want to hate her - she seems to make herself a favourite of everyone around her, with the notable exception of Verney's sister-in-law, you can't really dislike her, because she had such a sucky upbringing in such a joyless home. She's also a bit too naive for her own good, and has painfully low self-esteem. She should be much better at speaking up for herself. The fact that she's rather timid and quite plain, looks-wise also keeps her from falling into Mary Sue territory. I always like romances where the plain and quiet girl gets the hero.

Verney is wonderfully dramatic and it's no surprise that Harriet falls in love with him. I don't see how she couldn't. He's rich, handsome, extremely charming and showers her with attention. He tries to help her with when the horrible young man her father and aunt want her to marry comes to steal her back to England and once he realises that she's an innocent treats Harriet so honourably that she pretty much has to throw herself at him to get him into bed. Running away to realise her dreams and falling in love helps Harriet take proper control of her own life. She still has to be rescued towards the end, but it's so charmingly done, and her father and aunt are so horrible, that the whole thing felt a bit like a fairy tale, with Verney as the dashing prince, charging into the metaphorical tower to reclaim his princess.

The book was very sweet and an entertaining read. There's a few too many very happy coincidences of people ending up in the same place at the same time, as well as some rather convoluted misunderstandings to create obstacles for the happy couple of the "why don't you just actually TALK to one another?" variety, but it all works out well in the end. I will absolutely be looking for more of these.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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