SPOLIERS! Don't say I did not warn you.
Eva Ibbotson's novels were known to me as works of the fantastic. That is why, I was pretty surprised when I discovered, in all places -- at Powerbooks, Cebu, her romance novels. All three of them were displayed alongside chiclit and YA books in the Juvenile section of the bookstore. It was The Morning Gift that intrigued me most.
Ruth, a Catholic young lady of Jewish decent had to marry thirty year old Quinton Somerville, a British professor and paleontologist, out of convenience and survival. The year was 1938. The place was Vienna, Austria. Hitler's sphere of influence and reign of terror has begun. Ruth's parents fled Vienna and as planned, she was to follow them. But something went awry so she was left behind. Here comes Quinton to rescue the plucky damsel in distress. What followed was a series of funny, heartfelt and subtle romantic escapades in London and Northernumberland.
Ibbotson stayed true to the Austen tradition. For this, I give her props!
The wistful looks and lingering stares evoke the yearning of love unrequited. The unspoken tension described and told in the setting of a place, the intimacy of a moment, the conversations and dialogues between characters were all done with restraint and subtlety. The romance is sweet and tempered, yet intense. Writing in the third person point of view, Ibbotson is able to allow her readers to understand the mind scape and emotional bearings of her characters.
For instance, I could tell early on that Ruth and her childhood sweetheart, Heini, will never end up together because, Heini's intentions and longing for Ruth were shown as a matter of functional need. Lovers in romance novels ideally should complement each other no matter how different their personalities are. There is no spark between Heini and Ruth, so to speak. On the one hand, Quinton's motivation to save Ruth from the holocaust was a clear sign of his compassionate nature, but it is his restlessness upon discovering Ruth's presence in his class and the warmth he feels when he discovered her waiting by the shore one fine morning confirmed the possibility of love growing between them.
There is enough external conflict to spice up Ruth and Quinton's love story. There's the backdrop of war, their family's culture and its differences, and the third party on Quin's side of the love angle. What makes this romance story relevant though is its explorations of human relationships beyond the lead characters. Ruth's parents were given solid ground as people who truly matter in her life as she keep her marriage to Quinton a secret. Qunton's aunt and family friends were effectively used as contrast to his indefatigable and winsome qualities.
What did not work
Ruth although endearing is the typical ingenue. She has a host of friends and followers who stood up for her during difficult times. She has a temper and if not for her friends and family, she would have been in trouble from the start. This romance novel turns out to be a fantasy after all.
It's a small thing really, but I was hoping to see more of Ruth's inner conflicts. She does not have a major flaw. If she ever make a mistake, someone is bound to save her or something will happen that will fleet her away from danger.
The ending is rushed and cropped. I am not sure if this is deliberately done to indicate the passing of the years or to build up tension on the reader. By this time, Ruth and Quinton has affirmed their love and consummated their marriage that being severed from each other is just too impossible to happen. It would have been better if Ruth's suffering and her choice of leaving Heini and her parents were given at least a single chapter. This would have given Ruth and the reader to grow and mature together in the novel.
Nevertheless, everyone is happy in the end. The whole thing worked somehow since I'm pinning to read the other two from Ibbotson's romance novels.