Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reading Through History: A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson (1985)

Harriet Morton, the daughter of a Cambridge professor, leads a very sheltered life. Her father and aunt Louisa both want her to be a dignified young woman and someday marry a stuffy entomologist named Edward Finch-Dutton. Harriet wants something else- to dance. When she is offered a spot in a dance company traveling to the Amazon, her family forbids her to go, but unable to stand her oppressive life any longer, she defies them, sneaking off to become a ballerina. In the ballet company, Harriet meets girls with much more life experience than she has, but she manages to hold her own, becoming friends with her fellow dancers... and falling in love with Rom Verney, the owner of the opera house where the company performs. Everything would be perfect for Harriet, if only her father weren’t coming to find her.

Though it took me longer to get into this book, I wound up liking it almost as much as The Dragonfly Pool. Eva Ibbotson has such a way with words, and the audiobook narrator, Patricia Connely, has the perfect voice for bringing her stories to life. What surprised me was the difference in reading level and subject matter between the two books. The Dragonfly Pool is decidely a middle grade novel focused on the concerns of children around age 12. A Company of Swans is a much more mature novel, aimed at older teens, and even adults. There is quite a bit of sexual content, as well as references to young girls jumping out of cakes and dancing for rooms full of men. Readers - and especially parents - who borrow this book expecting an innocent story like that in The Dragonfly Pool - might be surprised to discover this jarring change of pace. Especially upsetting might be the scenes late in the book where Harriet decides to let Rom “ruin” her. This is a concept with which adult romance readers might be familiar, but for kids and even teens it might be a bit more than they bargained for.

Despite its mature content, however, this is a wonderful book. It immerses the reader completely in another time and place, bringing 1912 South America to life through beautifully described passages and well-developed characters. Any girl who has ever aspired to be a dancer will love all the references to various ballets, and will live vicariously through Harriet’s dream role as a member of the ballet company. Girls who love romances will also enjoy all the yearning and heartache that occurs between Harriet and Rom before the inevitable happy ending finally brings them together. Readers will also love the suspense created by the various roadblocks to the couple’s happiness, from a misunderstanding regarding Rom’s late brother, to the sudden arrival of Harriet’s intended husband in the city where she is staying.

For teens who are beginning to grow out of YA novels, many of which seem to be aimed at the middle school set, A Company of Swans is a perfect first foray into the world of adult fiction. It is certainly better written than many of the mass market historical romances being published these days, and even the most intimate moments between the main characters are handled subtly and tastefully. I will probably never love an Eva Ibbotson novel as much as I loved The Dragonfly Pool, but this book was a close second. For a teen ready for a mature romance novel, it is the best book I could recommend.

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