This is not the first Eva Ibbotson novel I’ve read – I have previously read Madensky Square and The Secret Countess, both of which I enjoyed – but I’ve been particularly looking forward to this one as so many Ibbotson readers speak so highly of it.
The novel opens in Vienna and introduces us to Ruth Berger, the twenty-year-old daughter of a professor of Zoology, whose life revolves around music, nature and her cousin Heini, the concert pianist she has always expected to marry. When the Nazis invade Austria in 1938, Ruth and her family are forced to flee but while her parents make it to safety in London, Ruth is left behind due to a problem with her student visa. A friend of her father’s, the British scientist Professor Quinton Somerville, comes to the rescue with the suggestion that Ruth marries him as a way of getting to London. Once Ruth is safely in England, the marriage can be annulled.
Of course, things don’t go exactly as planned and dissolving their marriage of convenience proves to be harder than they expected. Ruth becomes a student at Thameside University and finds herself in Quin’s class where it will be impossible for them to avoid each other as the lawyers have advised. While she and Quin struggle with the growing attraction they feel for each other, another complication arrives in the form of Heini who has made his way to England and expects Ruth to marry him as soon as possible. Will Ruth and Quin’s secret marriage be discovered?
The Morning Gift is a lovely, romantic story; it took me a while to get into it as the beginning was quite slow, but I became completely absorbed in the story somewhere in the middle and although it was really quite predictable, I still didn’t want to stop reading until I’d found out how things would end for Ruth and Quin. But there is more to this book than just the romance; among other things, it also offers insights into what life was like for a family who escaped persecution in Austria just in time and took refuge in London. This aspect of the novel is based on the author’s personal experiences – her own mother had to flee Vienna and Eva joined her at Belsize Park in London, where the Berger family live in the novel.
I also liked the academic setting and all the little scientific references that are dropped into the story as Ruth studies for her Zoology degree. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the field course at Bowmont, Quin’s estate in Northumberland. Ruth takes genuine pleasure in the natural beauty of her surroundings – the waves tumbling against the cliffs, the smell of vanilla drifting from a gorse bush, the sound of a curlew calling – and I loved seeing the Northumberland coast through her eyes.
I liked both Ruth and Quin, but there’s also a good selection of strong secondary characters: the other refugees who meet for tea and cakes in the Willow Tea Rooms; Ruth’s Uncle Mishak who copes with his wife’s death by planting radishes; Quin’s formidable Aunt Frances who will do anything to prevent Bowmont being given to the National Trust; and Ruth’s fellow students at the university, especially Verena Plackett, the closest thing to a villain in this novel. There are many more – too many to mention here – but all of them have something to add to the story.
I did enjoy The Morning Gift but it’s probably my least favourite of the three Ibbotson novels I’ve read so far. There was nothing in particular that I disliked about this book (apart from the slow start); it’s just that I preferred The Secret Countess and Madensky Square. I’m looking forward to continuing to work through the rest of Ibbotson’s novels!
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.