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enchanting emigre romance
on 6 June 2006
The morning gift is a present sent from groom to bride in a morganatic (ie unconsummated) marriage of convenience. This is what Ruth, the Jewish heroine, consents to in order to share Quin's British passport and be whisked away from Nazi Vienna to rejoin her family in London. Eccentric, strong-minded and academic like all her family, Ruth is in love with a gifted pianist, Heini, who is more concerned with his art. Quin, a brilliant Professor of paleontology, falls in love with Ruth but even when she becomes his student she fails to see this, leaving him prey to the appalling Verena, a rigidly conventional girl from the same upper class Northumbrian background as his own.
Readers who enjoy conventional romance will have no difficulty in deducing that everything turns out happily in the end, but with Ibbotson as with Austen what is so captivating is not her plotting but her wit, her gift for character and her insights. Emigre life in Belsize Park during the late 1930s is a brilliant comic subject, not least because so many of the Jews who fled Hitler were not brought up in the faith and met rabbis as bewildered as gentiles. The sadness of the survivors, who know all too well what is happening in Germany and Austria even if their hosts refuse to see it, creates a dark background against which the happiness of the good feels hard-won. Ruth is Ibbotson's most touching heroine (alongside that of A Song For Summer and COmpany of Swans) and she continues to appeal to teenagers even today. This novel is now as rare as hens' teeth, but it will be reprinted in 2008 if you can bear to wait that long.