So, first off, I did completely Princep’s Fury which was my Book 20 for 20 Books of Summer, so I was successful!!! Totally stoked.
Secondly, things have been quite busy around here. Somehow, summer is almost over and I still have a lot of things on my list to get done!! So I have been painting shelves and fence and house trim and the porch, and also trying to learn how to make my own tomato sauce with tomatoes from my garden as well as freezing green beans and also hanging out with my family and trying to train the dog how to not drag me across town when we are taking a walk. So, life is busy but good.
I have also, weirdly, been selling books. I have this whole box of books that I keep meaning to donate or something, but there is this funny thing… not everyone reads the same books! So, much to my surprise, people are buying the books I don’t want?? About half the books are ones random people have given me (another funny thing: people seem to think that if I like to read, it means I like to read… everything, apparently?? Because they literally hand me a pile of books and say, “Hey, I know you like to read so”. I mean, I appreciate the sentiment but it makes me giggle sometimes). The point is, this means that I have a little bit of spare cash… to buy books! Do you think I could eventually make my whole book thing self-sustaining?? (HA!)
ANYWAY on to The Morning Gift. I approached this book with mixed feelings. The official synopsis says:
Ibbotson magically recreates pre-World War II Vienna and introduces Ruth Berger, passionate, clever, and wildly in love with Heini Radek, a young prodigy come to study piano at the Conservatoire.
… When Hitler’s forces move into Austria, Englishman Quinton Somerville offers Ruth matrimonium ad morganaticum – marriage based on the morning gift, a present given by a husband wishing to free himself from a new wife. If she accepts, Quin will bring Ruth with him to England, and safety, as his betrothed. The consequences of her decision are surprising – and undeniably romantic.
Now, basically my favorite trope is one in which people are married and then fall in love. (My favorite, I think, is The Princess by Lori Wick.) So that’s the reason that I put The Morning Gift on my list to begin with. HOWEVER my only other experience with Ibbotson was quite negative: A Company of Swans, which I basically hated because the characters were completely unlikable, the situation mind-blowingly unrealistic, and the couple NEVER had a conversation in which they walked away with the same understanding as to what had just happened – how am I supposed to root for a romance with two people who are literally incapable of communicating?!
Point being – I was leery of The Morning Gift but… romance after marriage…!!!
And what I got was a 3/5 read. There were a lot of things about this book that I liked, but a lot of negatives as well.
The main positive were the setting and background characters. These were brilliantly done. I enjoyed every character who crossed these pages. They all felt quite real and interesting. I am always intrigued to hear about various subsets of people and how they were impacted by WWII. My understanding is that Ibbotson herself left Vienna in the 1930’s, and that a lot of this background information was semi-autobiographical, and I think that that was part of what made this so realistic.
Ruth is a likable heroine. She is intelligent and kindhearted, studious and fun. It was easy to see why everyone loved her and wanted the best for her, but at the same time she wasn’t a perfect angel, either.
Ironically, the main problem with this story was… the story. :-/ Parts of it made sense, but there were long sections in which I found myself wondering what in the world was going on. About a third of the actual story should have hit the cutting room floor, and the whole thing would have flowed much better.
The beginning is good. We meet Ruth and her family, happy in Vienna, surrounded by extended family and friends. Ruth is a smidge spoiled, but has one of those characters that doesn’t seem to be negatively impacted by the spoiling, and is well-loved by everyone. A distant cousin comes to stay with them, and he is a musical genius. Ruth, who is very attracted to music, is drawn to Heini (seriously, Heini?!) when they are children, and continues to virtually worship him as they grow older.
This leads to our first hiccup. Heini is always presented as someone who is completely self-absorbed. He knows he is a musical prodigy, and takes advantage of everyone in pursuit of his passion. He takes Ruth for granted and expects her to wait on him hand and foot. Consequently, I never liked Heini, and never understood why Ruth liked him, either. He’s never given a single characteristic that makes him likable. And I realize that this is so that later, when Ruth stays with Quin instead, we won’t feel bad for Heini but… then it ends up feeling like there is no point to Heini’s character at all. He was definitely the last-believable and least-interesting character in the cast, put there solely to create an impractical love triangle.
So anyway, Ruth and Heini are engaged, yadda yadda, Germany is getting really interested in taking over Austria, and many of Ruth’s friends and family start to leave for England because even though they are not orthodox, they are Jewish. Ruth is going somewhere else in the country to college when her family leaves Austria, believing that Ruth will have no problems leaving on her student visa, but there is an issue and Ruth isn’t allowed to leave. She returns to Vienna, but everyone is gone – and Hitler invades.
Through a series of coincidences, Quin is in Vienna. He had met Ruth’s family several years earlier, when Ruth was still a girl. Running into her again, he feels an obligation to see her to safety. They try a couple of options, but nothing is successful and time is running out, and so, by page 66, they are married and on their way to England.
Before the wedding, we get this conversation, wherein Quin explains to Ruth that this will be a marriage in name only:
It had been a mistake to introduce the word morganatic into a conversation that was already going badly. …
‘Who is he, this Morgan?’ [Ruth] asked.
‘He isn’t anyone,’ said Quin, sighing. … ‘The word morganatic comes from the Latin matrimonium ad morganaticum – a marriage based on the morning gift. It’s a gift given the morning after the bridal night with which the husband, by bestowing it, frees himself of any liability to the wife.’
Ruth never really seems to grasp the concept of the morning gift, probably because Quin explains it terribly: I didn’t grasp the concept, either. I was even more confused when I looked it up. Quin’s explanation goes on to say that the morning gift means that they are basically not married any more, but according to the Wikipedia article (which is obviously correct), the morning gift was actually used in situations where one spouse (usually the husband) marries someone quite beneath him socially. The morning gift is given because the wife and any children they have will not inherit money, land, or titles from the husband. But the wife who receives the gift is still quite married – the husband couldn’t go off and marry someone else. It’s just a little bonus money because that’s all the money she’s going to get. Consequently, I never understood why Quin was dragging the morning gift into his situation at all, because it didn’t match what was happening with them. And after this conversation on page 47, we don’t hear about the morning gift again until page 310. What even.
In between, the story drags on and on and on, full of misunderstandings and misapprehensions. Quin and Ruth keep their marriage a secret, and are working on getting a divorce, which is quite difficult to do at this time in England, especially since they have to wait until all of her visa stuff is settled first. Meantime, they spend basically no time together, yet I’m supposed to believe that they are falling in love. There’s another girl, of course, who is super weird to me. Like Heini, she is presented as completely unlikable and honestly rather dreadful, so why would Ruth ever perceive her as a threat? Quin is completely oblivious to the pursuit from the other girl, and consequently sends all sorts of mixed signals.
I honestly got very frustrated with Quin. When my niece was learning to talk, she would frequently not talk, instead whining or crying because she wasn’t getting what she wanted. Our response to that was always, “You need to use your words!” And that’s exactly what I kept wanting to say to Quin. USE YOUR WORDS, QUIN. QUIT EXPECTING EVERYONE TO FREAKING READ YOUR MIND. It was super, super annoying.
I won’t even go into the ending. Just when it appeared everything should be resolved, that ol’ morning gift reared its ugly head again and I had to drag through another fifty pages of completely impractical and unrealistic filler before finally getting to the actual end. We’ll just say that if I had been Quin, I would have been genuinely ticked off. (Although it’s sort of his own fault…USE YOUR WORDS, QUIN.)
If it weren’t for the fantastic background and wonderful secondary characters, this book would have been a low 2/5, but those things really brought the tone of this book up. I loved Ruth’s parents and all the neighbors and the wonderful women running the tea shop and the other professors and Ruth’s college friends. The descriptions of everyone trying to adjust to and find a new life in England were really well done, and I loved how everyone jumped right in, trying to find a way to be useful and industrious in their new lives.
On the whole, I definitely plan to give the rest of Ibbotson’s works a miss. Two books of unlikable and unrealistic situations, wherein all the romantic tension is created solely because the two people involved don’t know how to USE THEIR WORDS is plenty for me!
#17 for #20BooksofSummer!