Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Recommended reading

For my (awesome) journalism class, we're practicing writing reviews of books, movies, tv shows, and such. This was what I turned in for a book review, and I think it explains this book pretty well. I hope y'all enjoy it (and the book, too)!

I was a volunteer teacher in the South Bronx this summer when I stumbled upon A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson at Borders. It was one of my precious few days off, and my aunt, who lives near New York City, was late for our lunch date.

I was surprised to find A Song for Summer while scanning the shelves. I have long admired Ibbotson’s children’s novels, but had no idea she also wrote for adults. I took it to the bookstore cafĂ© and read the first few chapters.

Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I had fifty essays to read and grade for the next day’s class. It didn’t matter that I had two train rides to navigate after lunch, and five weeks until I would be home. It didn’t matter that I only had a few dozen dollars to my name.

I had to have that book.

I bought it, feeling guilty about wasting money as I spent my last ten bucks. But when I finally finished the book a week later, I knew I had made the right choice.

A Song for Summer tells the story of Ellen, a clever and beautiful girl raised by her staunchly, hilariously feminist mother and aunts. Despite their efforts to train her to be a scientist, a politician or at least an artist, Ellen is incurably domestic. She loves to work with her hands- cooking, cleaning, gardening and simply taking care of people.

Immediately after she graduates summa cum laude from her domestic arts college, Ellen travels to Austria to work as housemother at an eccentric boarding school on the verge of ruin. She works to bring warmth and order to the run-down school, and her loving nature works magic on the children. She also meets the dashing Marek, a man as kind and competent as she is, who works as groundskeeper but is secretly transporting Jews out of 1939 Germany.

This sounds like the makings of a trite romance novel. It isn’t. The book is surprisingly complex, with dozens of minor stories woven into the main drama of Ellen’s life. Her life is rarely a drama, though, and that is this book’s magic. It is an unabashed celebration of the ordinary. In real life as in A Song for Summer, distant battles and noble ballads are no more important than bathing suits, home-cooked meals, birthdays and pet tortoises.

The other extraordinary strength of this work is its humor. Ibbotson upholds the name of British wit by never taking herself or the book too seriously. Her understated irony pervades the plot, so subtly that it is easy to miss. The book at times reads like a crash course in high culture, as Ibbotson shamelessly name-drops great composers and famous musical works, yet manages to come across as natural thanks to a tongue-in-cheek attitude that refuses to give these notables too much credit. And even in the darkest moments and most luminous joys of Ellen’s story, funny touches keep the story grounded in reality.

A Song for Summer is not perfect. At times it barely manages to stay on this side of cliché. It also suffers from the occasional dull spell with too much description.

Yet any girl who reads it will want to be like Ellen, with her inimitable zest for living. Any guy who reads it will identify with Marek, who knows the right thing to do and struggles to do it. It seamlessly fuses the sublime with the mundane, making a book that soars like a symphony and has the earthy goodness of fresh-baked bread.

It was worth every penny.

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