There is so much to absolutely love about this book. It’s a World War II story, yes, but it’s so much more than that. It’s lyrical. It’s evocative. It’s earthy and soaring at the same time. It’s a simple, yet poignant, love story.
It’s practically perfect in nearly every way.
Ellen is the product of some very intimidating women. Charlotte (Ellen’s mother), Phyllis and Annie are strong women, suffragettes, unafraid, and they expect grand things from their clever little girl. Except, Ellen grows up adoring her grandfather’s housekeeper, the Austrian Henny, and ends up more interested in cooking and cleaning than philosophy and being clever. She eventually bags going to university altogether, and instead graduates from the Lucy Hatton School of Cookery and heads off to Austria to become the matron at a boarding school there.
This is the story of her summer. It’s a magical summer: not magical in the sense of magic, or even magical realism; no, it’s just magical in the sense that everything falls into place. Ellen works wonders on the children — each unique in their own way — and the staff — again, unique — in her small, subtle, and infinitely wonderful ways. She weaves her way into their lives and makes everything … better. It’s also a love story, for she meets Marek, the groundsman with a secret. And as the secret unfolds, we are taken on a musical journey that literally soars. Sure, it’s all make-believe, but Ibbotson’s writing is so tactile, you can almost hear the concerts, listening to the music float off the page.
While the war is in the background in part one, it does play more of a role in part two. Thankfully, it’s not as long as part one, even though it covers more time. It’s almost anti-climactic, though part one ends in such a cliffhanger that it feels necessary to finish the tale. And even though the second part is not as strong or as lyrical as part one, it does make the book come full circle, and ends it in a very lovely place.
And, really, you can’t get much better than that.
Rated: Mild, for some mild language.