A Company of Swans review

esta2A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

Macmillan 2008

For Harriet Morton, ballet is the only escape from her dreary home and strict family. Then a Russian ballet master comes searching for dancers…

Defying her father, Harriet runs away to join the ballet on a journey to the Amazon. In a grand opera house, deep in the heart of the wild jungle, she performs Swan Lake – and falls in love with a mysterious British exile. But Harriet’s father has tracked her down… and her new life is under threat.

This book was a Christmas present to myself  – one of those moments where you see a book that’s not on your TBR, it’s not a review copy, it’s just exactly what you feel like reading and so you treat yourself. And as I had tickets to see the English National Opera Ballet for the first time ever in London this year (The Nutcracker – it was beautiful, the most magical evening ever!) I was really feeling in the mood for a book about ballet.  Many a girl dreams of being a ballerina (I know I did!), so that’s the first thing this book had going for it – nothing like a bit of childhood fantasy fulfilment, is there? But it doesn’t stop there – running away to join the ballet, forbidden romance, a crumbling English country manor that holds secrets, a journey to the exotic Amazon… All in all, it’s the perfect recipe for escapism, and I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who wants to slip in-between the pages and away to far-off lands.

That’s not to say, however, that the characters in this book have it easy. At the start of the story we find our poor heroine Harriet living a very dreary, restricted life with her unloving family who only seem to care about penny-pinching and keeping up appearances. And later on in the book she finds herself in very dire circumstances thanks to their narrow-mindedness. It’s all a bit Jane Eyre, or Harry Potter before he gets whisked off to Hogwart’s. Eva Ibbotson has a way of writing that  gets you right on side – I was almost booing and hissing at Harriet’s father and aunt for banning her from ballet lessons, then I wanted to let out a big cheer when she made good her escape! She is also very witty, in an understated way, and she had me chuckling indulgently at Edward, Harriet’s bumbling wannabe suitor, as he flailed around with insect-catching devices in the simmering Amazon heat.

There were too many memorable characters to list – dear earnest Harriet herself, her flamboyant and fabulous French dancer friend Marie-Claude, prima donna and diva extraordinaire Madame Simonova and of course the adorable bespectacled young Henry, to name but a few. What made it a great read for me, though, was Ibbotson’s vivid description: from examining fleas under a microscope to the singular pain and exhaustion known only to ballet dancers who practise rigorously every day, every moment was fleshed out with the smallest of details. There were lots of twists and turns that kept me reading – getting accepted into the corps de ballet of a touring company and then falling for the mysterious and wealthy British exile Verney are only the start of Harriet’s journey. There are plenty of hurdles for her to get over and enough people hell-bent on putting a stop to her freedom and happiness. There is a wonderful romance at the heart of this tale and, perhaps because it’s set in a time past when morals and a girl’s reputation were held in highest regard, I was a bit surprised by how heated some of the romantic scenes were!

I think if had one reservation, it would have to be the cover – the stock photo of a gooey-eyed girl and the plonked-in-place swirly handwriting typeface don’t do this wonderfully written story justice. I’m so glad I didn’t judge this book by its cover and discovered the legendary Eva Ibbotson, whose books I’ve been meaning to try for a while. In fact, I’m going to set myself a little reading challenge of reading more of her books this year.

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  1. Books and the Ballet | library4delinquents

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