My scheme, intended to cheer me up from my mild post-Christmas sadness, was that in January I would order myself an Eva Ibbotson book from PaperbackSwap, one of the romances, as a comfort book. And then I would slowly order more Eva Ibbotson books, gradually, at the rate of one Eva Ibbotson book every few months, as I needed them, maybe alternating with some of the better Barbara Michaels books, and someday, a year or two from now, I would have all the comfort books I needed.
This was a drastic underestimation of how awful January was going to be. I will go ahead and say this is the worst January on record, including January 2005 which, as Januaries go, was very damn awful. The only difference is that I am older now, and better (don’t laugh, Mumsy, I think this is true!) at dealing with difficult months. I have better internal resources, and I am kinder to myself when things are going badly. Also in 2005 I didn’t know about gin or coffee. Or Friends. Or cheese fries. (Poor Past Jenny. How did she ever cope with life?) Yet in spite of all this, January 2012 was still worse. I turned out to need way more than just one Eva Ibbotson or Barbara Michaels book. I have ordered three so far, of which The Morning Gift was the first to arrive.
And you know what, just, WELL PLAYED ME. My plan to use Eva Ibbotson as a standby comfort author was absolutely spot on, one of the best comfort read plans I have ever concocted in the whole history of comfort plans. There is a quality to Eva Ibbotson’s romances of being sweet and comfortable and safe, like curling up in a plushy sort of hammock in a room scented with cinnamon and sandalwood while someone brings you ripe peach slices.
So, yeah, the plot. The Morning Gift is about this Austrian girl Ruth in Nazi times, who is stopped from leaving Austria because she once did some student socialist protest. Her family, not realizing that her visa is invalid, go ahead to London without her. Family friend and scientist Quin Somerville finds her and helps her get out of Austria by contracting a marriage of convenience that will allow her to be classified as a British citizen long enough to get her out of the country. Then they can annul the marriage. Y’all can see where this is headed because no fictional marriage of convenience has ever in the history of literature ended up as just a marriage of convenience. That would be contrary to the laws of fiction. In the meantime you get the joy of reading about the community of refugees in London where Ruth’s family lives, and about Ruth’s arrogant piano genius boyfriend (I was trying for “prodigy” and wrote “parody” instead), and about Ruth’s adventures in zoology school with all her lovely friends. Eva Ibbotson always makes me feel warm and fuzzy when she writes about communities, and these are communities based on real ones in her own life. So, double the warm fuzzies.
For those of you out there who have read Hilary McKay’s books about the Casson family — basically I am targeting this remark to my mother and Ana, but surely others of you know Hilary McKay! — I always think Eva Ibbotson’s heroines are often quite a lot like Caddy Casson. Smart and competent and a little scatty and weird in ways, but fundamentally really sweet and endearing. That was Ruth. At one point she jumps in the ocean to save a puppy. Wouldn’t you like to be friends with someone who would jump in the ocean to save a puppy?
And look, if you described this book as “too sweet to be wholesome” (which I’m afraid is what Mumsy will say) (but not really! because the sweetness is counterbalanced by the Nazi wartime setting!), I wouldn’t argue with you that much. And if you said the “bad” characters were drawn with a pretty broad brush, I would have no counterargument. But you know what? If I wanted moral complexity, I wouldn’t pick up a comfort book. Eva Ibbotson! Hooray!