Friday, October 14, 2016

A COMPANY OF SWANS


Review of A COMPANY OF SWANS by EVA IBBOTSON

Harriet has lived a dreary, dull life penned up with her conservative father and aunt in 1912 Cambridge. They permit her one indulgence, ballet, but certainly neither approves of the art. Then someone offers Harriet a place in his ballet company set off for a South American tour. It seems the adventure she’s dreamed of all her life, except her father would never allow it. Given a choice between submit and rebel, Harriet goes against her good girl instincts and chooses rebel. She sneaks off to join the company against her father’s wishes and finds a happiness exceeding her wildest dreams. Of course, her father and the man he hoped Harriet would marry are determined to bring her home, ideally ashamed and contrite.

With this premise, Ibbotson delivers another complex and engaging young adult historical romance. Ibbotson’s books are very similar and many of my comments remain the same despite the specific novel. That all said, if the books are formulaic it’s a successful formula and I would happily read as many as she could write.

Each book features a wide and diverse cast and, though having a big cast may be a commonality, Ibbotson makes each character unique and plenty surprisingly layered. In A COMPANY OF SWANS, I particularly like Marie-Claude, a gorgeous dancer who many, men especially, wish to peg as a loose and simple harlot for her enviable curves and mermaid-like, long, blonde hair. Except Marie-Claude already has a fiancé to whom she’s devotedly committed and, thankfully, her intelligence isn’t inversely proportional to her looks either. Part of why I like this character so much is because authors often fall into a trap of making their heroine the most, or worst – only, likable female in the book. It shouldn’t detract from one woman’s strengths to acknowledge other strong women.

Another trend throughout these novels is that the heroines are rather interchangeable. Though they have different hobbies, their general outlook and personality are the same. Harriet is young and naïve, but also smart, considerate, passionate, and not someone to underestimate merely because she’s growing into herself. All the books feature a much older romantic interest who’s drawn to the heroine for her refreshing innocence and purity. That may be the only thing that irks me a little in these books: the importance placed on “purity.” In defense of the novels, the author seems to mean more of a purity of spirit: being a good person. That said, sometimes the heroines are such good people that they seem annoyingly Mary Sue. I like the parts when one of them has to battle a negative emotion like resentment or jealousy more than when the character seems too wholesome to feel such petty emotions.

I intensely admire how Ibbotson describes characters’ appearances. She has so many distinct ways of crafting an image in the reader’s mind, and she uses vivid, unusual words for writing about features rather than simplistic descriptions like “big nose” or “brown eyes.” In general, Ibbotson claims an utterly unique writing style. Some works are more about plot than writing, but I believe I could pick out Ibbotson’s writing from many random samples. Her writing can be wordy and indulgent, but always endearingly passionate and heartfelt.

Sadly, Ibbotson only wrote five of these delightful young adult historical romances. Additional reviews to come, though other than plot descriptions you will find much of my commentary on these books the same for all.

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