Guest Star

Romance Done Right

This week’s piece on a maligned artform is by Chris Szego.

Battered and beloved.I read, on average, ten books a week. Seriously. In fact, I consider reading a physiological necessity like sleep, or chocolate: you can skimp on the proper amount for a while, but sooner or later, you have to get enough, and in the meantime, you’re irritable and a little crazy. I own far too many books to keep them in the same building, let alone the same rooms. But no matter where I live, there’s one book that’s always on my shelf.

Most of us have one, a story we know by heart. A truly beloved book, the one that comes down from the shelf when life is tense and frustrating and we require a little something extra to get through the toughest bit. Mine is an old, battered ex-library copy of Eva Ibbotson’s gorgeous romance novel, Magic Flutes. It’s about music, family, love, and home, and was so beautifully written that I took German, so as better to understand Mozart’s opera.

Set in 1922 Vienna, Magic Flutes is the story of Tessa, the under-wardrobe mistress of the International Opera Company. An unpaid intern of sorts, Tessa lives in a tiny attic flat, does the work of ten people, and believes passionately in the idea of art as a passport to human freedom. It seems unlikely in the extreme that she should ever cross paths with Guy Farne, a rich and energetic British industrialist. Sent to Vienna by his government to help the new republic of Austria obtain a huge loan from the League of Nations, Guy is powerful, influential, and a multi-millionaire in a time when a million dollars was an impossible sum.

But few people are seldom entirely, or only, what they seem. Guy himself was an orphan, found under a piece of sacking in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. And Tessa is in truth Princess Theresa-Marie Rodolphe Caroline, impoverished owner of a legendary castle Guy wishes to purchase. What happens next is as predictable, and as beautiful, as sunrise in the Austrian Alps. Separated by class, wealth, and all manner of social barriers, Tessa and Guy fall in love.

Battered but beloved.
What makes it work so well is Ibbotson’s unparalleled ear for language. Her Vienna is one of hardship and poverty: the reality of a major European city devastated by World War I. But it also full of beauty, and light, and above all else, music. This Vienna is the city of Schubert and Brahms, of Schonberg and Bruckner, and most of all, of Mozart. All of the major characters have a passionate devotion to music, to opera in particular, and the joy they take in their obsession is contagious.

But even more than Vienna and music, Ibbotson knows people. Her characters are never less than real, even when they’re larger than life. Of Guy as young student in love, she writes, ‘Friends clustered round him like puppies, bemused by his happiness. He discovered the Secessionists, climbed the dizzying verdigris dome of the university, and hardly ever went to bed. That spring and summer of his twenty-first year, Guy was invincible.’

Here David, Guy’s secretary, tries to describe Tessa to Martha, Guy’s foster-mother, when she asks if Tessa is pretty: “No … I don’t know. Her eyes are beautiful. But she’s so little and thin and she moves so quietly that at first you don’t think … she’s so unadorned, you see …” David shook his head, caught in the bewilderment of those who try to describe a personal enchantment. “All I know is, Martha, when she comes into a room, it’s as though a lamp’s been brought in, or flowers …”

Ibbotson’s novels for adults are sadly out of print on this continent; my current copy was a gift from a good friend who diligently, and at some expense, hunted it down online (and if the person who has my original copy is reading this: bring it back, idiot!). Magic Flutes may be as hard to find as buried treasure, like all of Ibbotson’s books for adults, but it is definitely as worthy of the search.

Brimming with warmth, charm, and humour, Magic Flutes is also full of quiet wisdom. Everyone learns; everyone grows. Including the reader, who is treated to the exquisite alchemy that is romance done right.

Chris Szego is the manager of Bakka-Phoenix,
Canada’s oldest SF bookstore. She can be contacted here.

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