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.

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