I don't know how I missed this one. Because I have read a lot of Eva Ibbotson. But I missed it and that is lucky for me because I have found it and now I have another book for my keeper shelf and what a book.
This book is hilariously sharp. And while a lot of us read Ibbotson when we were younger because she had just been released as YA and her fairy tales were just the aching sort of thing we would fall into as uber romantic teens who wanted older cultured men and european locales (with the right fringe of war-time danger), adult Rachel is SO happy she read Morning Gift now because double-entendres are my thing and whipsmart innuendo is my thing and this book proves Ibbotson a master at both.
See, Ibbotson never intended for her books to be categorized as YA and I think this is largely in part of YA not existing when she published the way it does now. So, this is very much an adult romance with a charmingly youthful and beguiling heroine.
There is something SO refreshing about Ruth. She is so inquisitive and smart ---but never precocious-- and she sees the world in such a delightful way. She is the perfect counterpart to academic Quin Sommerville who navigates a world of fossil and bone and tries to shrug out of his heritage like a sweater....
....but I get ahead of myself. Because the characters inhabiting this treasure trove of a laugh out loud confectionary are worthy of the brilliant world Ibbotson creates.
First, we sink into the green depths of opulent Vienna at the brink of Hitler. Even the shadows of the Anschluss cannot stop the beaming sun from highlighting Strauss in the Statdpark or the night time world of the Natural History Museum in Maria-Theresien-Platz, where Ruth, whose partly Jewish parents have already escaped and being left hopelessly alone, has taking up residence.
As in every last Ibbotson book, the author knows her fairytales are only perfectly woven if done so with music, myth and magic to mete what she is embroidering. And so, the luscious world she describes is matched with Ibbotson's over-turned passion for art, for music, for Vienna. For Mozart.
Oh yes, the Mozart.
‘It’s Mozart, isn’t it?’ she said, sighing, for she knew already that there was everything in Mozart; that if you stuck to him you couldn't go wrong."
Quin shook his head, but he was amazed, for she had pushed back her hair and smiled at him – and in an instant the beleaguered captive in her tower vanished and it was summertime on an alp with cows.
The humour in this book draws the reader out of the encroaching pathos and even while Ibbotson's personal experience with refugees and exiles due to her family's own evacuation from Austria during the war. And as in all books, the theme of outsider is most expressly viewed in the delicious personality of her winsome, elvish heroines. And Ruth is no exception.
Too late, Ruth realized where she was heading and looked with horror at her empty glass, experiencing the painful moment when it becomes clear that what has been drunk cannot be undrunk. It had been so lovely, the wine, like drinking fermented hope or happiness, and now she was babbling and being indiscreet and would end up in the gutter, a confirmed absinthe drinker destined for a pauper’s grave.
I also love the Ibbotson take on the Chekhov's gun motif: meaning if she mentions a rucksack in chapter two, say, you better bet that it will come full circle in a moment of love hundreds of pages later. If Ruth languidly spending her last hours in Vienna before exile at the Danube, speaks to her uncle's romance borne of a message in a bottle, then the theme of rivers will stream through the slow-moving love story of our heroine
So Quin the academic with a title and a grand estate, late of Britain, rescues his old professor's daughter and marries her in paper only to get her out of the country. He tells her the story of a Morganic marriage: where it is unconsummated and sometimes followed by an act of a gift the morning after the wedding night where the bridegroom gives an expensive gift to his bride, severing the marriage forever. Ruth's imaginative goblet spills over and she is just so in love with the romanticism of this idea and she culls a million momentous references to myths and legends and is so darling about the whole thing.
So Quin and Ruth marry, steal away from Austria to England and her awaiting already- fled family aboard the Orient Express and seem to be rid of each other until their annulment papers can be sent.
Turns out Ruth is pursuing a british education and Quin is her professor and it gets even more fun!
There are several Goodreads reviews that cite this as a poor example of "instalove" where the hero and heroine find happiness within the latter third of the book and it is not developed. I DISAGREE!!!!!!!! (a million exclamation marks). The careful reader will see the knowing winks from the author pairing them together. We have figured out their love, they are just catching up and it is slow and agonizing and dotted with misunderstandings and stupidity (as is love in general) and the clumsy waltz they take around each other from the classroom to Quin's family summer home in Bowmont is achingly funny and wonderful and heart-wrenching.
Ruth is so charming. Her worry over not having her post-coital tristesse ( she has read too many dirty french novels), her propensity to talk to sheep.
Quin is so determined not to be in love that its web around him is just the most deliciously wonderful thing. I snorted. I giggled. I chortled.
The more he tries not to actively notice her, the more she becomes a part of him:
Nevertheless, Nature had not shaped Ruth for nonexistence....Ruth leaning over the parapet to feed the ducks was not nonexistent, nor encountered in the library behind a pile of books, a piece of grass between her teeth. She was not nonexistent as she sat under the walnut tree coaching Pilly, nor emerging, drunk with music, from rehearsals of the choir. In general, Quin, without conceit, would have said he was a man with excellent nerves, but a week of Ruth’s anonymity was definitely taking its toll.
In turn, Ruth's tide is pulled in by Quin but she is so engaged in the new experiences around her that she doesn't have the same slow recognition of his effect. She also, because she is young and impressionably romantic, believes she is destined for Heini, her stupid cousin who is an insufferable archetype of every insufferable suffer-for-my-art musician to ever live. And this roundabout dance of two people who thought they would never see each other again always, always within feet of each other as their attraction grows, is just the sweetest thing on the planet. Quin made a sacrifice rescuing her, giving her his name, but we just do not see how tantamount that is until we see a Quin reconciling with the fact that she might not ever truly be his.
And Ruth.... oh darling Ruth! ---is naive enough to think that Quin will reject her. The Morganic marriage motif comes to a shattering conclusion and I cried through Ruth's mistaken heartbreak.
Quin, encountering that rare phenomenon, a person who read footnotes, was ready to be impressed.
Ruth’s eyes glowed with the ardour of those who swear mighty oaths.
Ruth and Quin are two of the most delightfully funny and decadent and unique and esoteric and quirky and challenging characters I have encountered in a book in AGES! I love them! I love their blind love for each other and how they frustrate each other and how they are so passionate about each other even as they mask it by quoting classics at inopportune times. I love that his heart wrenches when she almost drowns rescuing a puppy so he yells at her something fierce and I love that she runs to him after a botched night with Heini so they can finally get around to consummating their own love. I love that while the shadow of Hitler falls in pitch-perfect research it never detracts from the life and passion around! Life! It makes me think of a photography exhibit that my friend and I went to a few years ago. Photographs from the Lodz Ghetto: tragic circumstances but captured humanity: women getting married, children playing. We sometimes have the propensity to see the Second World War through a grainy sepia film of docudrama. We need books that show what thrived even as it crept like its Leviathan and Ibbotson infuses her personal experiences into a book about love.
Love for music, for love itself, for romance and Mozart and Vienna.
When the angels sing for God they sing Bach, but when they sing for pleasure they sing Mozart, and God eavesdrops.
Quin and Ruth are an unlikely pairing in an unlikely magic moment of a book that begs to be read within an inch of its life. The humour is to die for! The love story just the right amount of melodrama to whisk you away and remind you that hot cocoa and blankets pair well with things that are imagined and need not accompany realism.
I friggin LOVE this book. And will read it to infinity ....