No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

2012/57: Madensky Square -- Eva Ibbotson

At ten o'clock this morning, Frau Hutte-Klopstock, the wife of the City Parks Superintendent, handed me a magazine and said she wanted to look like Karsavina in The Firebird .

"Something diaphanous, I thought," she said. "Shimmering. In flame or orange."

Frau Hutte-Klopstock is healthy, she is muscular; she is sportif and athletic. A small glacier in the High Tatras has been named after her and of this one must be glad. But oh God! Karsavina!

Some of Eva Ibbotson's romantic novels have, I believe, been reissued as 'teen reading'. I wish I'd been able to read them as a teenager, rather than reading the dire bodice-rippers in the local library: but they are not written specifically for teenagers, and there are many shades of grey [haha] in their protagonists' moralities.

Madensky Square was the first of Ibbotson's romances I read, probably in 1998; I recall picking it up in the Holborn branch of Books Etc, reading a random page and being entranced by the heroine's voice. Fourteen years later, reading the newly-released Kindle edition, I'd forgotten almost all of the plot, so it felt like a fresh delight.

Vienna, 1911. Susanna runs a successful dress-making business in a small, neighbourly square. Her lover is a Field-Marshall, but Susanna does not pine over his frequent absences or beg for him to leave his wife. She's far from lonely. Aside from her regular customers (including the Countess von Metz who pays for her dresses in 'antiques'; Magdalena, ethereal bride-to-be of a jovial pork butcher; Leah Cohen, who needs a dress for the races that will also do for planting oranges in Israel...) there are the other inhabitants of the square; Susanna's anarchist assistant Nini, who models clothes for the bourgeoisie with an authentic sneer; and Susanna's dear friend Alice, the only person to know the details of Susanna's personal tragedy.

Alice experiences tragedy of her own: her lover Rudi has a heart attack, and is not expected to live. Alice has no chance of being admitted -- a mistress! -- to the hospital where Rudi's dying, until Susanna steps in with common sense (and an 'in' in the form of Rudi's equally sensible daughter, who'd much rather her father was happy).

And then there's Sigismund, the orphaned ten-year-old prodigy whose piano-playing fills the square like spring. How, in this city of artists and writers and professors and musicians, can he hope to find success?

What I like most about Madensky Square is Susanna's voice: a keen and cutting critique of the society in which she lives ("Frau Hutte-Klopstock is back from the High Tatras. Her sister has been in Paris and says that Poiret is freeing women from the corset. All I can say is that if he was designing for the women of Vienna, he would think again ...") coupled with expansive kindness and a fierce loyalty to those she deems worthy. She's seldom sentimental, eminently practical, and far from flawless, and there is a lyrical clarity to her observations which makes them memorable.

I'm hoping that more of Eva Ibbotson's adult novels will show up on Kindle's Deal of the Day ... I think I still own them all, but it's an excellent excuse to reread!

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