Book Review: The Reluctant Heiress

Hello, everyone! I hope you’re all enjoying the fine spring weather. I’m on Spring Break now, so I checked out about ten books from the library and have been devouring them. Today’s review covers Eva Ibbotson’s The Reluctant Heiress. I went through an Ibbotson phase years ago and read all of her children’s books, but I completely missed her Young Adult reads. The Reluctant Heiress is rich with Ibbotson’s elaborate prose, but suffers from an enormous dose of that horrid 4 letter word called “love.” Why does it have to ruin every YA book? I promise I am not a bitter spinster, I’m just sick of plot being swept away in the face of heart-stopping, coup de foudre love. As a romantic novel, The Reluctant Heiress is enjoyable, but as just a novel, it lacks the same magic as Ibbotson’s other works.

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And of course it has the girliest cover of all time

Synopsis: Princess Tessa of Pfaffenstein wants nothing more than to devote her life to art as the under-wardrobe mistress of Jacob Witzler’s struggling International Opera Company. But anonymity isn’t so easy for the princess of Austria’s most illustrious royal family: everyone expects her to marry Prince Maximilian of Spittau and give up her anonymous life to become the new princess of Spittau. But when Tessa meets Guy Farne, a self-made millionaire set on marrying his teenage love Nerine, the princess realizes that her old dreams are no longer enough.

My take: The Reluctant Heiress is a classic “girl-meets-boy” story with the benefit of being set in the fabulous artistic world of post-war Austria. For those familiar with Ibbotson’s other works, you’ll know that she has a love for England and for Austria, and has a habit of glossing over the worst parts of both. So even though The Reluctant Heiress is a book written for adults (even though it was repackaged as a YA book), you won’t find more than the slightest allusion to the devastation caused by WWI or Austria’s absolute financial ruin. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you view it. Good, because that makes the Tessa’s world much more simplistic, and bad because it makes her world that much more unrealistic.

Tessa is already an unrealistic character. She suffers from the fatal flaw of being perfect. She’s humble, virtuous, selfless, intelligent, cosmopolitan, elegant, sophisticated, beautiful, kind, charasmatic, ambitious, etc, etc. You could probably fill a book with examples of Tessa’s perfection. Her love interest, Guy, is more realistic, but that doesn’t benefit him . He’s arrogant, viciously temperamental, sometimes cruel, and very selfish. He’s the type of man who throws a heavy silver centerpiece through a window because his fiancee upset him, and then says “I thought you would prefer me not to hit you.” What a gentleman.  However, by virtue of having good looks and a dash of charm, Tessa falls in love with him. Poor Tessa.

Reading this book put me in a bit of quandary. On the one hand, I was following the story of two thoroughly unlikeable characters who I really didn’t want to end up together. On the other hand, Ibbotson is no scrub when it comes to crafting a satisfying love story. Tessa and Guy have enough meet-cutes and drift aparts and kismet come togethers that even though you know that they’re going to end up together, there’s enough conflict to make the journey enjoyable. Even though I didn’t want Tessa and Guy to end up together, I can’t say I was disappointed with how their story resolved.

There were some characters I really enjoyed in the novel. Ibbotson is skilled at creating odd-ball side characters. There was Prince Maxi, who dutifully proposes to Tessa year after year, and Little Heidi, the sweet ballet girl, as well as the comic relief characters in the opera company. Even Nerine Croft, who is close to a villain as the book has, is a more interesting character than Tessa, because at least she has flaws. It was just so boring to read about Tessa because she never did anything wrong. I hate goody-goody characters like that. Even saints say a cross word every now and then.

And although the twists and turns of the love story are engaging, they’re still very predictable. If all a book has is a love story, and a trite one at that, then why should one read it? Tessa has a few strains of personality which could have been developed into a more interesting plot, like the clash between her royal lineage and her egalitarian nature, but since Ibbotson’s Austria is devoid of any historical reality, those strains of conflict never get a chance to develop. All in all, Tessa is just a girl in love with a boy and everything ends up happily ever after.

Final Consensus: Eva Ibbotson is an exceptional author of children’s books, but her adult novel The Reluctant Heiress falls short. Focusing too much on a idyllic love story, Ibbotson fails to make either of the two lovers compelling and gives their idiosyncrasies short shrift in an attempt to make the love story come true. Read Ibbotson’s other works, but unless you’re in the mood for something silly and saccharine, skip The Reluctant Heiress.

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