Title: Madensky Square
Author: Eva Ibbotson
Published: 1988, St. Martin's Press
Category: General Fiction
I'm almost through all of Eva Ibbotson's books! (At least all those written for adults.) I am so sad.
Susanna Weber is the proprietor of a dressmaker's shop nestled in charming Madensky Square of Vienna. This book is a journal of her life from the year 1911, describing her day-to-day existence, as well as those of her clients and neighbors. And we meet quite an assortment of characters: Susanna's Anarchist employee Nini; a jolly pork-sausage magnate from Linz whose young, devout fiancé seems disconcertingly more interested in the saints than in her gorgeous trousseau (or the pork-sausage man); a tiny polish boy who's being pushed into becoming a piano virtuoso by his desperate uncle; and the family across the way with six daughters and a seventh child on the way whose father can not believe he could possibly be cursed with yet another girl. Along the way, we find out about Susanna as well – how her warm-hearted generosity, which draws all these people to her and her shop, overlays a troubled past.
I always try my best not to include spoilers in my reviews, but I have to give a little one here, just because I can't really talk about this book without it. (And it is revealed very early in the book.) Madensky Square is partly a romance, but not at all a typical one. Because Susanna is an Other Woman. She has been the mistress of Gernot von Linenberg for over a decade. I know this is a hot button for a lot of people, and I would usually agree. Only Ibbotson could make it not sordid. There is some justification for the relationship: the time period, the fact that Gernot is an aristocrat who married young for reasons of wealth and status. Susanna does feel guilty about it, no question about that; but she loves him and can't give him up.
It's a very sophisticated story, really, about the importance of taking your happiness where you can find it and making the most of it. Susanna has had a lot of heartache in her life, but she still manages to enjoy life; her spirit is never crushed. That's why the book gets a tear icon, because I usually like my HEAs completely unfettered by any bits of sad reality. And maybe this makes me horribly naïve, but it's hard for me to imagine making do with this sort of existence.
Despite the weighty subjects, the book still manages to be joyful and charming. Her descriptions are so wonderful. Here's an example--she's describing the dog who lives across the street and lords over the square. "He has the large, square-muzzled head of a schnauzer and the tail of a muskrat, but his dreams, like his little legs, are Napoleonic."
I think her characterizations are perfect and just hilarious. Ibbotson's ability to flesh out secondary characters amazes me. There's a huge cast of characters here, and I ended up caring about every single one.