Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

The choice for the third week of the German Literature Month challenge was to pick an Austrian or Swiss writer to read. So I chose A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson.  Most people think that Eva Ibbotson is a British novelist and she was.  But she is also an Austrian novelist, and though she left Vienna in the early 1930s because of Hitler and the Nazis, her love for Austria is almost always evident in her novels.

A Song for Summer is no exception.  Londoner Ellen Carr has been raised by her mother and two aunts, all intellectuals and suffragettes, who desired Ellen to follow in their footsteps.  But Ellen’s heart lies outside academics; she is much more attracted to the domestic sciences.  So, after graduating from the Lucy Hatton School of Cookery and Household Management, Ellen takes a job as matron in a rather unconventional boarding school in Halllendorf, Austria.

The school is completely at sixes and sevens, but within a week Ellen has set it to rights.  And because this is an Ibbotson story, all the characters, teachers and students, are extraordinarily eccentric, who succumb to Ellen’s ministrations without sacrificing any of their personality.  And Ellen finds that she herself is attracted to the quiet, mysterious gardener, Marek Tarnowsky.  

But Marek, it turns out, had more than one secret.  For one, he is a resistance worker.  He and his friend Professor Steiner drive around in Steiner’s van to various countries rescuing Jews and smuggling them to safety, doing this under the guise of collecting folk songs from these places.  Marek has been searching for another old friend, Isaac Meierwitz, a Jewish music conductor who had been put into a concentration camp and had managed to escape.  When a rescue is finally attempted, it ends in two gunshots.  Each man believes the other has been shot.  Meierwitz wanders for hours looking for Steiner’s van, but ultimately, after days of walking and hiding, he makes his way to the school, finding succor there – Ellen hides him in plain sight by pretending he is her new chef apprentice.
Marek’s other secret is that he is a world famous composer, pursued by an aging, jealous, possessive soprano, Brigitta Seefeld, with whom he had once had an affair.  But Marek has now decided to live in America, causing heartbreak in both Ellen and Brigitta.  If the road to true love is rocky, for Ellen Carr the road is strewn with boulders and Nazis. 
Whenever I read an Ibbotson novel I feel as though I have entered not a fantasy world, but a parallel universe.  A Song for Summer is not exactly conventional historical fiction.  Yes, the threat of Nazism hangs over Europe and she acknowledges this repeatedly, but the school in Hallendorf seems to be devoid of any kind of direct Nazi threat, as there was in The Dragonfly Pool, and though there certainly were Austrians who supported Hitler early on, they did not live near Hallendorf.  One would at least expect some representative of the Reich to be throwing his weight around, even though the majority of this novel is played out prior the Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany (the very short Part II is set during the war and the even shorter Epilogue is in 1945, just after the war’s end.)  

I have always enjoyed Ibbotson’s unconventional cast of characters and A Song for Summer doesn’t disappoint on that score.   And I have also always enjoyed the way Ibbotson plays around with opposites in her characters – such as the soul sucking behavior of renowned singer Brigitta Seefeld, the shy, weak Kendrick Frobisher’s pretentiousness, the untalented FitzAllen stealing a Brecht property to gain fame, and the self-important behavior of people who think they are better than others when they clearly are not.  Ibbotson’s portrayal of these characters is totally spot on.

A Song for Summer is a wonderful historical romance novel, something I seldom read, but enjoyed thoroughly.  It was originally written in 1997 and marketed as an adult novel, but was recently reissued as a Young Adult book.  And I believe it is a novel that won’t disappoint adult or YA readers.

This book is recommended for readers 12 and up
This book was purchased for my personal library

This is book 3 of my German Literature Month challenge hosted by Lizzie's Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat
A Song for Summer
Eva Ibbotson
397 Pages


  1. I don't usually read romance or historical fiction but someone gave me this book a few years ago because she wanted to show me that there are good examples of both. She was right, I enjoyed it so much and think it's wonderful you've reviewed it. She creates a world enitrely her own and quite special.
    The book I read was marketed for adults but it certainly would work well as YA novel.

  2. Lovely write-up. I read this years ago and only vaguely remember what it's about. I need to revisit this one again. And yes, you can really see her love of Austria shining through all her adult novels that feature it.

  3. Hi Alex,

    Greg Pincus recommended I visit your blog, and I'm so glad I did. I can't wait to get my hands on A Song For Summer. It sounds wonderful. I love historical fiction.


  4. I apologize for not responding sooner.
    Caroline, I can see after reading A Song for Summer how it could appeal to both YA and Adult readers. Ibbotson was so versatile.

    Megan, Ibbotson always makes me want to get on a plane and go to Austria, she writes so lovingly about it.

    Mary, Greg is such a nice guy, and it was so nice of him to recommend my blog to you. Welcome! I also love historical fiction and this was one I particularly liked.

  5. Though I think of myself as knowing something about Austrian literature, I had never heard of Ibbotson. Nice review. This novel throws another light on the Austrian situation vis-a-vis the Nazis. Thanks, Alex.

  6. You write such beautiful reviews I always want to read each and every book. I’ve just ordered a copy of a song for summer and can’t wait for it to arrive. Thank you.

  7. Dorothy, I may have pushed the envelope a little by using Ibbotson as an Austrian writer, but yes, it does indeed shade light on the Austrian situation and the Nazis and that is a good thing.

    Barbara, thanks you for your kind words. Of course, I always think the same when you post all those charming pictures on your blog (I am a big big fan of pictures) This was a nice book and I hope you enjoy it.