Set in the aftermath of World War I, The Secret Countess is about Anna Grazinsky, an eighteen-year-old Russian countess whose family loses everything during the revolution. With her mother and younger brother Anna flees to England where she gets a job as a housemaid working for the Westerholme family. Despite her privileged upbringing Anna takes to her work in servitude with a vigour and earnestness that soon wins her the hearts of both the servants and the family. Rupert Westerholme, the young earl, reluctantly returns to take on his role as head of the family and immediately finds himself drawn to the new housemaid. But Rupert is engaged to the ambitious and manipulative Muriel and so it seems that he and Anna are destined to remain apart. As Rupert and Muriel’s wedding approaches, Muriel’s character is revealed and Anna struggles to keep her true identity a secret.
The Secret Countess is Eva Ibbotson’s latest novel for young adults. Her previous work includes Which Witch and The Secret of Platform 13. This novel is aimed at older teenagers but you wouldn’t know it; I forgot I was reading a young adult novel. Both the prose and the plot are as sophisticated as many adult novels. Ibbotson writes for both adults and children and in this instance she is writing up for her young readers rather than patronising them with a simpler composition.
Ibbotson’s characters are just so wonderful and utterly memorable. Amongst them are Lady Westerholme, the kind dowager with a love of all things spiritual; Rupert’s bachelor uncle, Uncle Sebastien who has a passion for music and young maids; and Mr Proom, the stern butler, who cares for his bedridden, eccentric mother. I would love to see a film version of The Secret Countess simply to see these characters played by some of the well-known character actors that Britain has in abundance. Even the earl’s dog, Baskerville, is a character; he’s a snob who won’t associate with the servants he perceives to be below his station.
At almost 350 pages this book could have been longer … well, okay, I wish this book were longer. The characters are so captivating, each with their own story, that I felt there was so much more storytelling still to be done.
The Secret Countess is essentially a romance so I doubt it will find too many male readers; but it’s sure to be a hit with women, of all ages. Highly recommended.
Karin van Heerwaarden
Read more of Karin’s reviews and author interviews at her blog,
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The Secret Countess
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