The Morning Gift, by Eva Ibbotson

>> Monday, August 10, 2009

TITLE: The Morning Gift
AUTHOR: Eva Ibbotson

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Mostly 1930s England, with some of the early parts taking place in Vienna
TYPE: Fiction

REASON FOR READING: Ibbotson is one of my favourite authors, but I've been hoarding the few titles I've yet to read. A recent column at AAR inspired to read one of them.

Twenty-year-old Ruth Berger is desperate. The daughter of a Jewish-Austrian professor, she was supposed to have escaped Vienna before the Nazis marched into the city. Yet the plan went completely wrong, and while her family and fiancé are waiting for her in safety, Ruth is stuck in Vienna with no way to escape. Then she encounters her fathers younger college professor, the dashing British paleontologist Quin Sommerville. Together, they strike a bargain: a marriage of convenience, to be annulled as soon as they return to safety.

But dissolving the marriage proves to be more difficult than either of them thought, not the least because of the undeniable attraction Quin and Ruth share. To make matters worse, Ruth is enrolled in Quins university, in his very classes. Can their secret survive, or will circumstances destroy their love?
THE PLOT: All I'll add to the good summary above is that most of the story takes place in England, where Ruth and her family are part of the struggling refugee community, while Quin is very much a member of the upper classes.

MY THOUGHTS: God, I love Ibbotson's writing. She's got this amazing voice, which manages to be poetic without ever crossing the line into overblown. It really does feel magical, gave the story a fairy tale atmosphere. Best of all, this atmosphere somehow didn't trivialise or diminish the horror of what wass going on in Europe or the difficulties the refugees were facing, all the while making reading the book bearable and even pleasurable.

The secondary characters were beautifully drawn and well realised. From the downstairs psychoanalist neighbour to the old lady pushed out by her daughter in law with a pocketbook full of money, who just wants to buy everyone cake as a bribe to get them to listen to her, from Ruth's uncle, with his unlikely and romantic love story to Quin's colleague at the university, with his fertility issues. I especially loved that Ibbotson brings out the deep-down decency of people. Even the "villains" of the piece, like Verena and to a certain extent, Heini, are not inhumanly mean or evil, just regular, believable people who happen to be more self-absorbed and selfish than is good.

This wasn't by any means a perfect book, though. The romance wasn't as wonderful as I would have liked. I liked it, but it wasn't really what I loved most about the book. I liked Quin and Ruth individually and thought they were good together, but I didn't feel the inescapable certainty that these two should be together that marks really good romance.

But the main reason why The Morning Gift misses A territory was the ending. Throughout most of the book, Ibbotson succeeds in making Ruth's naiveté and flights of fancy charming, as they're combined with her otherwise very prosaic and down-to-earth outlook. But nearer the end, her tendencies stop being charming and harmless and just make her behave like an idiot. She seems to think she's a heroine in a bad melodrama and acts like it, and I lost patience with her.

MY GRADE: A B+. It's a testament to how much I loved the rest of it that Ruth's silly behaviour there at the end didn't derail the whole thing.


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