Monday, August 26, 2013

A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS


Review of A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS by EVA IBBOTSON

This sweet, funny, adorable book first introduced me to Eva Ibbotson, who writes both young adult historical romances like A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS and playful fantasy novels for a slightly younger audience.

A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS tests our habit of assigning genres and categories. It's historical fiction, no doubt, but it's also young adult and romance. The young adult part has shifted over time. (A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS originally classified as adult fiction until the publisher repackaged all Ibbotson’s historical novels.) Personally, I would call these books New Adult, but that term’s still in its infancy. As for romance, I mean that classification less in the steamy, bodice-ripper context and more in a tender, heartwarming, happily-ever-after sense.

While I always enjoy Ibbotson's work, I also recognize where her YA historical romances will bother someone with different tastes. The distanced, formal writing style puts me in mind of Jane Austen and numbers among the elements that will click with certain readers and not others. Ibbotson also narrates the story with a wide-sweeping viewpoint and a bountiful cast. I love stories with a plethora of characters (because I find that approach more realistic) but others may not.

However, the primary reason some people dislike Ibbotson's historical work has nothing to do with the writing and everything to do with the protagonists. There's no denying that her leads in these books are the epitome of the Mary Sue trope. Anna, our “countess below stairs,” always does the right thing. Everyone loves her, or if they detest her that’s a sure sign that person’s a “bad guy.” For the most part, this doesn't bother me, mostly because I find enough other redeeming factors. For starters, Anna is a genuinely nice, kind-hearted woman who sticks to her morals and looks out for those around her. Of course, many readers understandably like to see more moments of weakness, notable flaws, or selfish decisions in protagonists than you’ll find with Anna. The only thing that did irk me is how the story reinforces the attitude that naivety is the highest form of purity (and that purity is the quintessential feminine aspiration). And for all that I say Anna’s seeming perfection didn’t bother me, I did snort aloud at all the ado about her awe-inspiring curtsies.

Her curtsies, though, exemplify another redeeming positive: humor. Because even when I groaned at Anna’s absurd level of perfection, I always did so with a smile. There’s an understated, teasing humor that…well, tickles me. For example, the fact that Anna thinks she’s outsmarting everyone by pretending to be a servant, but they all know better. I laughed aloud when Anna, in an attempt to comfort a wronged little girl, lets slip something about all her family’s houses. Ollie, the little girl in question, catches this plural and asks, “Did you have a lot of houses?” To which Anna’s employer responds, “In Russia all the housemaids have a lot of houses, Ollie.” I also adored the snobby dog that refuses to enter the servants’ quarters.  

A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS won’t be for everyone, too light and wholesome for some appetites, but it’s a fun fluff read with real historical depth (and a darker subtext about prejudice, though the novel never brings that to the forefront), lovable - if simplistic - characters, and a sweet, satisfying comedic voice knitting together numerous storylines.

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