Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

After Countess Anna and her wealthy family lose their whole fortune and are forced to flee their home country of Russia, Anna takes a job as a lowly maid at a large English manor. Although she has previously only known a life of luxury, she is not unwilling to work--even in a servant position. Anna knows nothing about housekeeping or the duties of a maid, but by continuously referencing an outdated book of servant etiquette and household tips (much to the amusement and occasional annoyance of the rest of the staff "below stairs"), she is actually able to excel at performing the duties of a maid. But hiding her privileged upbringing which resulted in high-quality manners, graceful movements, and countess-like poise proves to be not quite as easy... 

Since Anna and her family come from Russia (and they are fluent in something like 3 or 4 different languages), there's quite a few non-English words and terms that are used, which honestly makes things rather difficult. A sentence will be rolling along, and suddenly there will be a non-English word (mostly Russian, I guess?) used, and I was left wondering what the word meant, and what was trying to be conveyed. Eventually I got used to this and just sped right over the foreign words, but of course that sometimes ends up leaving certain descriptions and ideas a bit lacking.

Maybe the style is just too high-brow for me, but overall I really felt the book was a bit too "wordy". Many of the sentences and descriptions were so long and complex that by the time I got to the end, I ended up having to skim the whole sentence again to nail down the exact idea being presented. I suppose it's possible part of this was due to the foreign culture and time period...but on the other hand I often read books set in historic England, and I haven't encountered something quite like this before. The wordy-ness is probably just the author's style, and unfortunately it didn't quite "click" with me. 

The description on the back cover really makes this sound like a great story... but somehow the impression I got from the description, and the reality of what the book is actually like, are two quite different things. I imagined the story would be told completely (or at least mostly) from Anna's point of view, but as it turns out the point of view shifts between countless characters. Anna, Rupert (the earl), his mother, his finance, the fiancĂ©'s weird Dr. friend, several different friends of the earl's family, and on top of all that multiple servants as well. I guess it flows fairly well, sometimes just a couple paragraphs from one person's point of view, and sometimes several pages before it switches to someone else. So while this wasn't what I expected, I guess it wasn't really a problem except for the times when I had trouble keeping track of who certain characters were, which happened a few times.

Overall the story wasn't bad, but the wordy writing style just didn't allow me to totally enjoy it. I wanted to see where the story went so I didn't seriously think about not finishing....but let's just say I'm happy to be done and to have moved on to a different book. I really would have liked to see more of the story told from Anna's point of view though, I think that could have improved things quite a bit. Judging by other reviews I've read, it seems I'm in the minority with my less-than-5-star opinion, so I'm not going to recommend for or against A Countess Below Stairs. I'll leave the decision up to you. 

My rating: 3 stars

For those who are interested, here's a brief content advisory:
There's not much to be worried about here. A few minor innuendos, a couple of d-mn words, and God's name is misused a handful of times. A couple of the side characters are interested in eugenics, which is basically selective breeding for humans, trying to cut out bad bloodlines with the proposed result of more beautiful, flawless, and intelligent people. I'm always a bit uncomfortable when such emphasis is placed on outward appearances...it's so judgmental, potentially mean, and obviously un-biblical. But anyway, those are the only content issues I can remember that you might want to be aware of beforehand.

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