Title: A Countess Below Stairs
Author: Eva Ibbotson
Published: 1997, Avon (Reissued 2007, Penguin Speak)
Category: Romantic fiction/ YA
I was in the mood for something light and cheerful, so I picked this one up last week. I'd ordered it after Rosario chose it as one of her books for the Lesser Known Favorites Meme. She said it was light and funny and romantic. And she was right. As usual. ;)
Anna Grazinsky comes to England as a refugee after the Russian Revolution. Her family was high in the Russian aristocracy, her father a count and friend of the Tsar. They've lost all their money, and the only work that Anna is able to find is as a housemaid at the country estate of Rupert, the Earl of Westerholme. Though she knows nothing about being a servant and the staff is wary of her strangeness, she is so cheerful and hardworking that she soon becomes most beloved by both the family above stairs and the staff below.
Post-WWI England being rather difficult for many of the landed gentry, the cash-strapped Earl has been lucky enough to find an heiress to marry, and the household staff is busily preparing to receive his fiancee. When she arrives, however, she begins offending people right and left, and soon people are feeling very sorry for poor Rupert. And it doesn't help that Anna and Rupert have become rather more than just friendly.
This book made me so, so happy! The edition I have (reissued this year) was released by a YA imprint and it does feel a bit YA-ish, mostly because it is all very sweet and innocent, a Cinderella story retold. But it is a very intelligent book too, chock full of interesting allusions---everything from Dido's lament at Carthage and women giving out white feathers in WWI to the study of eugenics. The European setting and Anna's Russian heritage I found completely charming.
Anna is a delightful character. One of those perfect people who you might want to hate because they're so perfect, but can't because they are simply too nice. She's gone from being a pampered princess (who somehow manages to avoid becoming a spoiled brat) to working as a servant, and she still throws herself into life with a joy that makes her existence (and everyone's she comes into contact with) a brighter and happier place.
The romance was lovely too, though for once it wasn't what I loved most about the book. ;) Rupert is the sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful sort of hero, which I always like, though there were a couple of places where I thought he acted a bit stupid for such an intelligent guy. But whatever. The plot ties up with painstaking tidiness, making it completely unbelievable, but as it's a fairy tale, it didn't bother me at all! The huge cast of lovable characters is what makes this a great read.
Before I picked this up I was in a bit of a reading funk, and this book just catapulted me right out of it. It was one of those times when the book I picked up suited my mood perfectly and really made my day. So thanks to Rosario for the recommendation. ;)
I've been to the library and gotten two more Ibbotsons. I'm hoping they're as good.