A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson is, I believe, the last of her adult novels that I had left to read. My profound thanks for this journey go to Kelly Link, who recommended the author to me roughly two decades ago.
A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson was a delight from end to end, even the sad parts, which given it’s set just before and during World War Two, with a glimpse afterwards, is a mighty accomplishment. It’s set primarily in England and in Austria.
The book opens this way: In a way they were born to be aunts. Emancipated, eccentric and brave, the Norchester sisters lived in a tall grey house in Bloomsbury, within a stone’s throw of the British Museum.
The heroine, Ellen, is the daughter a suffragette who shares a house in London with her two sisters; her father died in World War One. Her mother and aunts envision great things for her, but Ellen wants something quite different; she wants to be a homemaker, in the most profound sense of the word. It was of course all right for children to help servants: servants after all were a kind of underclass and should have been liberated except that it wasn’t easy to see how to run a house without them. But it soon became clear that Ellen enjoyed making beds and polishing the grate and setting fires.
In 1937, Ellen goes to work as the housekeeper/house mother for a school in Austria, run by an English Shakespeare scholar and housed in a decaying pink castle. This whole section is delightful, because Ellen makes the school a home and uncovers the children’s personalities; she also meets Marek, the mysterious and attractive gardener, who has more going on than is visible on the surface. Ellen is beloved by most of the school for her kindness and helpfulness; part of her homemaking is fostering the selfhood of the children, and some of the staff as well. Her story is one of love and support, which rewards her emotionally. Meanwhile, Marek’s story is one of danger and pain from the emerging Nazi threat in Europe; he is in hiding at the school, while working against fascism, his true self crushed inside of himself.
Of course, Ellen and Marek are romantically attracted; opposite personalities yield terrific romance plots. But their journey isn’t easy; this 1997 novel’s plot harks back in some ways to the sweeping historical romances of the 1970s, in which the protagonists are swept apart and reunited, separated again, and only reunited after great suffering. Don’t let that stop you. The story is beautiful and the happy ending decisively well-earned.
I read Magic Flutes in 2021, if you’re looking for an Ibbotson book which is a bit more lighthearted throughout.