“The Secret Countess” by Eva Ibbotson (YA romance) – I finished this about a week ago and absolutely loved it. Anna is a Russian refugee, who has fled to England with her mother and brother after the Revolution. Forced to take up a job as a housemaid to help support her family, she falls in love with her employee, the Earl of Westerholme. The Earl, however, needs to marry money in order to save his estate from ruin, and has just announced his engagement to an heiress.
(Fuller plot description and review here on Jennie’s blog, which inspired me to read this book in the first place.)
So nothing too earth-shattering in terms of plot – I bet there are hundreds of romances out there with the same premise. But this book is in no way a standard romance. In many ways, this reminded me of a fairytale, especially with Ms Ibbotson’s beautiful and lyrical writing. I was completely caught up in the story, and fell in love with Anna and her oh-so-Russian pragmatic yet dramatic outlook on life.
It would have been easy to Anna to become a bit of a Pollyanna, but she doesn’t, even though her joy for life and living came through so strongly. The secondary characters were so richly-drawn – you felt as though you knew each and everyone of them – and, oh, wasn’t Muriel just horrible? I was just dying for Rupert to come back and kick her out. And the ending made me laugh – it was the perfect way to resolve the conflict, IMO.
I suppose if I had any criticisms, it would be that everything is very black-and-white, that the good characters are perfect and the bad ones, really bad. And I’m not so sure about the uncle who likes an innocent fumble with the housemaids and the understanding housemaids who let him have his fun. That didn’t quite work for me.
But these are minor quibbles – this book is an example of YA romance done right. A straight A for me, and I’m going to track down Ms Ibbotson’s “A Company of Swans” next.
PS: I’m trying to decide whether this title “The Secret Countess” or the alternate title “The Countess Below Stairs” works best. And I still can’t decide. Maybe the latter, because it’s less run-of-the-mill.
PPS: It doesn’t come out so well here, but the cover is beautiful. The gold filigree edging is done in gilt. And the cover model actually looks like how I picture Anna in my mind.