Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: Madensky Square [1988]

Before a moving article was published on the occasion of Eva Ibbotson's death in October, I would have said that I was extremely familiar her adult catalogue (and a few of her children's books, such as The Star of Kazan). After all, I'd read A Countess Below Stairs, A Company of Swans, The Morning Gift, and A Song for Summer. I'd tracked down and devoured Magic Flutes even before it was republished as The Reluctant Heiress. So when Laura Amy Schiltz revealed that Madensky Square "was Eva’s favorite among her books. It is also mine. It is one of the mysteries of publishing that Madensky Square is the only one of Eva’s adult novels that hasn’t been reprinted," I was stunned. I raced to find a copy, wondering how I could possibly have missed it. Thank you, interlibrary loan! 

Madensky Square is probably the most "adult" of Ibbotson's adult novels, both in terms of some darker subject matter and the occasional frank discussion of sex. That being said, it's still an Ibbotson novel, and its pages abound with charming, engaging characters. Plot lines are neatly wrapped up and there are delicious standalone sentences. The novel is written in first person as a journal kept by dress shop owner Susanna Weber from 1911 to 1912. In a thriving pre-World War I Vienna, Madensky Square is not just the location of Susanna's store and living quarters, but a thriving community populated with quirky characters who are deftly captured with a few artful sentences. Susanna, while undoubtedly at the heart of Ibbotson's narrative, puts others' stories before her own. We learn about the mysterious Polish orphan across the street who does nothing but practice the piano; her best friend's grief at the death of her married lover; the struggles of a plain girl whose mother is a militant intellectual; and her anarchist shop employee, Nini, whose actions have sad consequences she hadn't anticipated.

Susanna herself is enormously sympathetic; she is the 36 year-old mistress of a prominent military man, and struggles with the knowledge that the daughter she gave up at birth has been raised by a kind and loving family. She is acerbic when it comes to dresses made by the rival dressmaker across town, but supportive to nearly everyone else. The action of the story culminates in the threat of street expansion (a symbol of looming modernization) from the officious Herr Egger, who has dreams of naming rights. Also lurking is the knowledge, on the part of the reader, that World War I will soon sweep through and forever change the radiant and bustling culture that Ibbotson has recreated. Although things are wrapped up neatly at the end of the book, the ending isn't entirely happy, for which I was grateful. I was left with the sense of bittersweet enjoyment that one gets when reading a good book for the first time--knowing that it will end, but realizing that it can be experienced again.

Grade: A

Random Thoughts:

Although it seems to be categorized as "romance," it's not a romance in the modern sense of the word, but more in the old-fashioned sense of the French "roman" or story--it's a character and community study, rather than a man-woman love story, although that element certainly exists in it.

I'm not sure it was my favorite of Ibbotson's books, but it's probably my second favorite after A Countess Below Stairs. Although I loved the characters, as a staunch vegetarian I couldn't quite like the conversion of a veg to meat-eater through the mechanism of a few tempting meat morsels.

Short stories aren't really my thing, but I now have A Glove Shop in Vienna & Other Stories in my TBR pile. Once I am done I will either declare myself (once more) an Ibbotson master, or start reading her adult novels all over again.

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