madensky square

Weekend Read: Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson

The best of Eva Ibbotson’s superb collection of humorous romantic dramas, which makes it very good indeed. Unusually, its heroine is not a young girl striking out into life and love, but a woman in her thirties with much worldly experience of both already. Fashionable dressmaker Susanna chronicles a year of her life in pre-World War I Vienna; her hilarious observations of her clients, her neighbors, and her friends provide one laugh after another. Will the shy little piano prodigy across the square ever get a debut concert? Will the bluestocking bridesmaid ever step out from behind her domineering mother, or is she doomed to write boring dissertations on Beowulf forever? Why on earth did a sensual pork butcher agree to a celibate marriage with a young beauty? And just what is the so-called “Nasty Little Habit” which sends the mistress of the local bureaucrat running?

No one has any secrets from the dressmaker, but Susanna herself is full of secrets. Why does she invariably disappear for a day or two after an onion-chewing little corporal comes to deliver a message? Why does she violently refuse to be godmother to any of her best friend’s daughters? And how did a girl with a good education end up a dressmaker in the first place?

Eva Ibbotson’s minor characters offer her usual smorgasbord of delights – Susanna’s Hungarian assistant with an equal passion for haut couture and anarchist slogans is a particular delight. But Vienna itself takes center stage: Susanna’s narrative pays an elegant, elegiac tribute to a city and time shortly to be engulfed by war. A magical book.

Teaser Tuesday

If there is a man I really and truly hate it is the Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev. Why couldn’t he have kept his glamorous ballerinas and exotic designers in St. Petersburg? Why bring them to Europe to torture poor hardworking dressmakers like me?

At ten o’clock this morning, the wife of the City Parks Superintendant handed me a magazine and said she wanted to look like Karsavina in “The Firebird.”

“Something diaphanous, I thought,” she said. “Shimmering . . . in flame or orange.”

She is healthy; she is muscular; she is sportif and athletic. A small glacier in the High Tatras has been named after her, and of this one must be glad. But oh, God! Karsavina?

— From “Madensky Square” by Eva Ibbotson. A frothy Sachertore of a book about Viennese dressmaker with a secret lover, a tragic past, and an irrepressibly funny outlook on life. Read my review of “Madensky Square” this Friday.