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The Reluctant Heiress by Eva Ibbotson, 325 pages
The story of Princess Theresa-Maria of Pfaffenstein and Englishman Guy Farne takes place in Austria in the 1920s.
A self-made millionaire and foundling from England, Guy Farne accomplishes more than anyone ever thought possible of him. Upon the purchase of the castle of Pfaffenstein, he returns to Vienna in order to secure the work of a small opera company. It is here that Guy first meets Tessa, the under-wardrobe mistress whose ultimate goal in life is to serve art and please others. Guy takes pity on the tiny, overworked, and underfed twenty-year-old, and they soon become good friends. The actual identity of Tessa is not known until the opera company arrives in Pfaffenstein to perform for Guy’s arrogant fiancée Nerine. After she arrives in Pfaffenstein, Tessa faces more struggles and strange emotions than she ever faced working in Vienna all while dealing with relations from her past.
The Reluctant Heiress illustrates some of the struggles European nobles faced after World War I, primarily monetary issues. These nobles were forced to sell their estates just to continue providing for their families, much like the Princess of Pfaffenstein or Prince Maximilian of Spittau in the book. It also provides insight about the art of music and instills an appreciation for the opera. The book details the production of several operas including The Magic Flute and describes the intense labor and financial problems of stagehands and cast members. The director of the opera company barely manages to maintain the company because of bills and production costs, while the leading soprano threatens to leave the company almost on a daily basis. The intrigue of the plot, the compelling characters, and the developing romance between the main characters make The Reluctant Heiress an excellent read. Although it is appropriate for high school students, it would be most suitable as an outside reading option because the language Ibbotson uses throughout the book is a bit inaccessible at times and boasts very little lasting literary merit despite its sensible themes. One theme Ibbotson wants the readers to know is beauty is only skin deep, as is the case with Nerine. Nerine is very outwardly beautiful, but is also very arrogant, superficial, and vain. At one point in the book she stated that she simply could not be poor because she had no right to be. She also has an obsession with her own looks and frequently experiences meltdowns because of marks left from bug bites or even the removal of mirrors from her favorite room. Tessa, on the other hand, exhibits an understated, true beauty that is reflected through her actions.