Part sweet romance, part satire, part historical chronicle of pre-World War II Europe, A Song for Summer is a multidimensional and rewarding novel. I plan to read it again soon, slowly and carefully. A poorly constructed ending is the only thing that kept this from being a 5-heart read, but I still recommend it highly.
Ellen Carr is a misfit within her own English household. Raised by her feminist mother and two maiden aunts, she has been taught that, thanks to their suffragist struggles, she is now free to pursue any career or vocation that she chooses. They have exposed her to political luminaries, avant garde artists, and the best education available for a young woman in the 1930's. So they are baffled when Ellen's favorite person in the world turns out to be her grandfather's housekeeper. Even worse, Ellen's goal in life is to attend
Domestic Science College to perfect her sewing, cooking and cleaning skills.
The Aunts are disappointed but resigned when Ellen accepts the post of housemother at an unusual Austrian school. Lucas Bennet founded Hallendorf with the vision of a multi-national haven for music, drama and dance, free of all of those wretched rules that ruined his own schooling. When Ellen arrives, she finds that the faculty ranges from the unusual to the bizarre and that the children, free of "those wretched rules," are totally out of control.
Only the enigmatic Marek, part-time groundskeeper and fencing teacher, seems to have any grip on sanity. Ellen is intrigued by this mysterious man who frequently disappears on secretive trips but has the compassion to make a set of wheels for a lame turtle. By the time Ellen has figured out Marek's true identity and his dangerous mission, she is thoroughly in love with him – and equally sure that her love will never be requited.
It turns out that Marek is equally enchanted with the lovely and capable Ellen, but that he has many reasons for not declaring his feelings. Hitler is beginning his insidious march towards European domination, both Austria and England are in his way, and it will be a long time before Marek and Ellen can finally find their happiness together.
A Song for Summer is an extremely literate, beautifully constructed book, with plotlines that weave in and out of each other seamlessly. Ibbotson has a talent for using short but insightful vignettes to illuminate her unforgettable characters. The most memorable secondary character may be poor Lucas Bennet, whose wife Tamara Tatriatova (nee Beryl Smith) has adopted the persona of a Russian ballerina.
Despite (or because of) Tamara's seductions of undulating belly dances and aromatic body oils, Lucas has to read Shakespeare's Sonnets to put himself in the mood for lovemaking. That single page scene conveys a wealth of humor and poignancy.
Life at Hallendorf is a mix of slapstick and sentiment as well. I really don't want to spoil any surprises for the lucky reader who picks up this book, but perhaps a taste of Ellen's introduction to the school, courtesy of a lonely student named Sophie, will suffice:
"That's Hermine. Dr. Ritter," whispered Sophie. "She's terribly clever - she's got a PhD in Dramatic Movement from Berlin University. She makes us be bunches of keys and forks and sometimes we have to give birth to ourselves."
But before the children could exhibit proper forkdom there was a fierce, mewing cry from what seemed to be a kind of herring box under the yew hedge and Dr. Ritter strode over to it, extracted a small, pink baby, and inserted it under her tabard.
"That's her Natural Daughter. She's called Andromeda. Hermine got her at a conference but no one knows who the father is."
"I didn't see any nappies," said Ellen.
"She doesn't wear any," Sophie explained. "She's a self-regulating baby."
"What a good thing I like to be busy," said Ellen, " for I can see that there's going to be a lot to do."
A Song for Summer alternates scenes that gently satirize intellectualism and feminism with scenes that illustrate the tragedy of war and of course scenes that portray a poignant love story as well. Ibbotson's satire is so affectionate that even an ardent feminist like myself couldn't take offense. And although Ellen is no militant feminist, she's no doormat either – she knows what she wants to do, and she does it well,
whether that's comforting a lonely student, preparing a sumptuous meal or risking her life to aid Marek in his dangerous pursuits.
My only complaint about the book is an extremely abrupt ending; four years of loose ends are suddenly tied up in 40 pages. This comes as a shock after a deeply involving experience that keeps the reader spellbound in the first 200 pages. It felt as if the author's publisher had suddenly notified her of an impending deadline and warned her to cut it short.
Several romance readers have recommended Eva Ibbotson to me, and I'm grateful to them for pointing me towards this talented author. I don't believe her previous books are available in paperback, but most should be accessible at the library. I know I'll be checking them out soon, but if you hurry you might be able to get there before I do.