Eva Ibbotson, “Magic Flutes”

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.

Hohenwerfen Castle near Salzburg. Pfaffenstein in the novel might look like this.

Hohenwerfen Castle near Salzburg. Pfaffenstein in the novel might look like this.

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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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3 Responses to Eva Ibbotson, “Magic Flutes”

  1. Alex says:

    I hadn’t realised that Ibbotson had written for adults as well. I have loved her YA books for many years and have always thought she was sorely underrated. I mourned her death and so now to discover that there are adult novels to which I can turn is an unexpected Christmas present. Thank you.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Oh, Alex, I’m so glad this is a discovery for you! She is Just. So. Good. Have a wonderful holiday!

  3. Barbara says:

    Another outstanding book recommendation, Carol. Magic Flutes was a delight and I completely agree with your floating island analogy. What I liked best about the book was just the right touch of tart (lime zest garnish, maybe?) in Ibbotson’s writing to keep it from getting too cloying. “Subterranean wardrobe” subconsciousnesses and all!

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