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 fiancee 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...This is such a strange book. Do you know how a cat will tip its head and jerkily poke an unfamiliar object? That's how I feel starting this review.
The writing style was... weird. I don't know if it was a "I was written in the 80's and we did things differently then" kind of weird or what, because I'm not an expert on the evolution of writing styles. Maybe it was an Austrian type of style (the story is set in Austria, and I'm willing to wager that Ms. Ibbotson is Austrian).
Or maybe Ms. Ibbotson was simply doing as I suspect she was - writing a fairy tale.
I mean, look at that summary. We have a humble servant girl who is actually a princess in disguise. She sings and dances and works tirelessly like an Austrian Snow White. Then she meets a "dashing" man, a millionaire, who sweeps her off her feet. If only he didn't have a total witch of a fiancee. Oh, and it's all tied up with the princess hoping for a happy ending.
Total fairy tale. And you know what I love fairy tales. Loooooove them! However, I'm not sure how I feel about this book.
Ms. Ibbotson does so many things "wrong." Her prose is chockfull of purple descriptors and passive verbs, and the ENTIRE FIRST CHAPTER is about Guy Farne, rather than the heroine Tessa. I had to read the back cover again to be sure Tessa really was the protagonist. Oh, and that first chapter? Total background stuff. He was born here, this is what he was like as a child, this is how he met his foster mother, this was Guy in college, this was how Guy made his money, etc. etc. etc.
The characters are pretty stock as well. Guy is the proud and silent Mr. Darcy type. Tessa is the silent martyr with a plucky streak. There are two maiden aunts who dote on Tessa and a foster mother who dotes on Guy. Guy also has a handy Man Friday type (whom I secretly like). Even the fiancee is the stereotypical status snob with hyper-active vanity (though Ibbotson, in the end, does tweak her a bit to make her less stereotypical).
What a waste of time! you might say. Well... maybe, but not really.
If you're looking for a tightly written, cutting-edge novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat, this isn't the book for you. But if you're wanting a laidback summer read that reminds you of the fairy tales you used to read as a kid, go for it.
I mean, think about the old fairy tales. They're brimming over with stock characters, often employ purple prose and passive action, and usually tell the stories chronologically, which means huge swaths of info dumps and setups. They also sometimes keep a bit of a gap between the readers and the characters, where you feel for them but aren't as invested in their futures as you would be with, say, Katniss and Peeta. Totally got that with The Reluctant Heiress. There were times when I was a little nervous for Tessa and Guy, but I didn't lose sleep over them.
So yes, a strange book. In the end, I think I liked it. Not LOVED it, but it got a shrug and a nod from me. After all, I'm a sucker for fairy tales.
Points Added For: Tessa's infatuation with The Arts, Guy Farne and his cool eyes (which are totally believable - my mom's are the same way), Beethoven's button.
Points Subtracted For: I like knowing how I feel about a book as soon as I finish it, dagnabit!
Good For Fans Of: Eva Ibbotsen's other books, those fat, gilded fairy tale collections.
Notes For Parents: ... I don't remember anything, to be honest. Perhaps there was a word or two, but if I can't remember, that probably means you're a-okay.