Being an heiress in 1920s Austria with nothing but a broken-down castle to your name and nary a penny in your purse could be frustrating for anyone but the Princess Theresa-Maria of Pfaffenstein. “Tessa,” however, is thrilled with her situation, as it allows her to concentrate on her love of the arts—and no one in the Viennese opera company need know that their delightful and charming under-wardrobe mistress is really a princess. But when the dashing self-made millionaire Guy Farne arrives at the opera in search of suitable entertainment for his high society guests, Tessa realizes that there may be more to life—and love—than just music. But while the attraction between them in undeniable, Guy’s insufferable snob of a fiancée only solidifies Tessa’s determination to keep her true identity a secret. Yet, after a chance meeting with the handsome Englishman, Tessa’s reserve begins to melt, and she starts to wonder if it’s not too late for a fairytale ending…Have you ever started a series or read a book by an author you haven’t read anything by before and just wanted to smack yourself for not reading the book earlier? That’s pretty much how I feel about “The Reluctant Heiress.” I read Ibbotson’s children’s books (Which Witch, Island of the Aunts, Secret of Platform 13, etc.) when I was in elementary school, but I never got around to reading her YA-ish ones. And now I’m kicking myself, because “The Reluctant Heiress” was so great and I have a feeling that Ibbotson’s other ones are just as good.
I think what I came away with most of all from this book is a reminder of what a fantastic storyteller Ibbotson is. There are books that are so realistic and current that you feel like you’re in the story yourself, and then there are books like this one--books that have you wanting to curl up with some hot chocolate and just get lost in the skill of the storyteller. Ibbotson tells a story in a way that’s interesting and clever but at the same time completely comforting. And when I say “clever,” I’m not kidding--this book had me smiling at the constant wittiness of the description.
I also loved how Ibbotson created a world where I felt at completely at home, even though I know next to nothing about 1920s Austria. And she somehow managed to do it without an overabundance of description.
I loved the characters so much. Tessa is perhaps more kindhearted and selfless than anyone would ever be in real life, but she’s so humble about everything that you can’t help but adore her anyway. Guy reminded me a bit of Mr. Rochester from “Jane Eyre”--which is a good thing, but like Mr. Rochester, his faults were pretty easy to see (like his annoying tendency to jump to conclusions). But even more than I liked the main characters, I loved the secondary ones. Tessa’s aunts and Guy’s foster mother are some of the most likeable backup characters I’ve seen in a while. And I admire how skillfully Ibbotson is able to gently mock and make fun of her characters without detracting from their good qualities--that takes a lot of talent as a writer, I think.
Overall, I adored this book--Ibbotson is just such a skilled storyteller. And I guess it’s a good thing after all that I’m just now getting around to her YA books--it means I have a bunch of great already-published books to read.