From time to time, I like a meringue, and when that’s what you want, there’s no substitute for its insubstantial sweetness. But given the choice, I will always opt for floating island instead. You’ve had it, I hope? It’s more complicated, but more satisfying. The beaten, sugared egg white is poached in vanilla-flavored milk. The yolks left over from the meringue are combined with the poaching liquid to form a thin custard sauce. The soft meringues are then served floating on a pool of custard and if you are very lucky, some kitchen magician will have placed a brittle frizz of caramelized sugar atop it all.
You could tell that was a metaphor, right? The fact is, I don’t know what else to say about Eva Ibbotson. I’ve loved her books for many years because they are to escape reading what a floating island is to a meringue: familiar ingredients and technique, elevated by talent and craft to something sublime. Yes, Magic Flutes is a romantic novel (and if you buy it for the Kindle, do not be put off by the cheesy cover). Yes, we can tell where it’s going from the very first page. Yes, Eva Ibbotson’s main job is to keep the appealing hero and the appealing heroine apart for the length of the book.
But while she is fulfilling the requirements of her genre, Ibbotson is also gently mocking it, and this is what makes Magic Flutes so delicious. Everything is pushed just a little too far: the castle (of course there’s a castle!) too large, the hero too swashbuckling, the heroine too lovable, the wicked woman of the world too selfish and shallow. The setting is Austria between the World Wars and Ibbotson, Viennese by birth, gives us all the appealing Viennese tropes: the pigeons, the quaint squares, the pastries, the opera…
…. The opera! Magic Flutes, get it? Yes, we have a lovely young couple who must be permitted to get together in the end, and yes, the girl is a princess. But she is also the under wardrobe mistress in a ragtag opera company that is engaged in mounting a production of, naturally, The Magic Flute. So the secondary characters are caricatures for the most part, but enchanting ones: the Russian Duke who goes nowhere without his somewhat tattered live bear, the tortured composer who goes nowhere without his yogurt culture known as The Mother, the ballet dancers known simply as “the Heidis.”
Ibbotson is better known for her young adult fiction, including a novel called The Secret of Platform 13, published in 1994, that seems to prefigure the Harry Potter novels with its magical station platform. But it’s the handful of Ibbotson’s witty, literate romances that I really treasure.