Desert Isle Keeper
“I woke in such a good mood this morning. There was a dress floating about in my head; almost ready, almost there. Cream silk, the skirt trimmed with tiers and tiers of rough cream lace and the bodice tuckered but unadorned except for a single rose.”
So begins 36-year-old Susanna Weber’s diary and Eva Ibbotson’s Madensky Square, a unique and charming book. Susanna is the owner of a dress shop in Vienna’s Madensky Square and in her journal she sets out to record the events of her life and the stories of her friends, her customers and her community.
There are, for example, the Shumachers, neighbors with six adorable daughters and a seventh child, much hoped to be a boy, on the way. There is Nini, Susanna’s 19-year-old assistant, a former refugee and passionate anarchist, whose activism grows increasingly reckless. There is Herr Huber, the owner of a chain of butcheries, who comes to Susanna’s shop to purchase a trousseau for his future bride, Magdalena, a stunningly beautiful young woman whose only passion is her religious fervor. There is Magdalena’s kindhearted but hopelessly plain friend Edith, dominated by her harridan of a mother. There are Susanna’s other customers, the owners of the neighboring shops, the passerby, and the haunting music that drifts into the courtyard from a piano whose mysterious player remains hidden from view.
And there is Susanna herself, a woman with an appreciation for beautiful clothes, good music and good company. She is a deeply sympathetic character, simultaneously pragmatic and romantic, sensitive but resilient. Her wit, her joy of life, and her tolerance for human foibles are expressed in her journal in the warm, confiding tone of a close friend.
Though Madensky Square is labeled a romance on its spine, it isn’t a traditional one in the strict genre definition. Susanna loves and is loved by the dashing Field Marshal Gernot von Lindenberg, but Gernot is married to a largely absent wife and divorce is a social impossibility for him. He has tried to insist that Susanna leave him for someone who could offer her marriage, but Susanna wants no one else. She cherishes her stolen moments with Gernot as she does her friendships, her dressmaking, and Vienna itself.
There are moments when Susanna is haunted by a tragic event in her past, but what makes her so likable is that she remains free of self-pity and grateful for the small pleasures of her life, everything from the fact that the curtains in her dress shop are “the color of newly picked lemons,” to the blooming of her pear tree. When the people Susanna knows are in need, she is always there for them, doing what she can to help.
One of the delights of Madensky Square is that the small events that unfold eventually connect to other happenings. The characters cross each other’s paths, their lives interweaving in unexpected ways. Through Susanna’s lively interest in her community, we come to care about the fate of each individual. Will Susanna make peace with her past? Will Frau Schumacher finally provide her husband with the male heir his timber business must have? Will Nini come to her senses before her loyalty to the anarchist movement costs her a chance at love? Will Herr Huber realize that Magdalena is only marrying him for his fortune and that someone else loves him deeply? Can the melancholy piano player find happiness? And will Susanna’s pear tree finally yield fruit?
I will not reveal the details, except to say that though Susanna and Gernot don’t marry, their story and the other storylines end as well as they can. In fact, if I have any quibbles at all with Madensky Square besides one misunderstanding that was a bit unconvincing, it’s that one or two of the storylines wrap up a little too neatly and conveniently.
Madensky Square is a true confection; Ibbotson’s writing is so rich that it melts in your mouth. Her continental sensibility and satisfying descriptions are reminiscent of Judy Cuevas/Judith Ivory European-set books like Beast and Dance. Ibbotson is also a children’s author, which probably explains the sense of wonder in her books and the picture-book quirkiness of characters like the tight-fisted but fashion loving Countess von Metz, “short and squat with a face like an imperious muffin and a purple nose.” Confides Susanna: “That first time she stayed for an hour and made me take down every single roll of material I possessed while her Pekingese, cowering under one of my draped tables, made a puddle.” Ibbotson’s gentle irony and social humor is much like that of regencies, but though the lovemaking is only discreetly alluded to, Madensky Square has none of the primness that one occasionally comes across in Regency Romances.
The book is also a generous-hearted valentine to the bygone era just before the Great War, and the knowledge that the way of life it portrays was forever altered just a couple of years later tinges it with wistfulness. Ibbotson depicts the square with its statue of General Madensky, its fountain, church, and café with color and detail. Gardens and window boxes fill with blooms, the Viennese opera house is flooded with music, the countryside and the streetscape come to life, peopled with characters that are imaginative yet real, and the threads of these endearing people’s lives are woven together as finely as the fabrics in Susanna’s shop. What makes this even more impressive is that Ibbotson does all this in just a little over 300 pages, yet Madensky Square rarely feels rushed. Like a magician pulling out a chain of more and more scarves from a small cup, she produces one delightful moment after another and keeps you turning the pages until the final paragraph dissolves away on a last sweet note.