Annika, 12, was found by Sigrid and Ellie on a walking trip, and brought up by them, until Frau Edeltraut comes along and reveals that she is Annika's mother. Annika leaves her Vienna friends and her life behind and travels to the Edeltraut estate, Spittal, where she discovers that the family is impoverished but that her arrival is expected to bring good fortune with it.
Eva Ibbotson's usual style brings with it quirky but charming characters, a simple and happy heroine and her friends, and mildly comical wrongdoers who ultimately receive their just deserts. There is a comic-book simplicity to the story, but thanks to her technique of letting us see inside the decisions which characters make, the author brings some life to all but the most incidental of roles.
Annika's character manages to be charmingly virtuous without losing its realism. Brought up simply in the kitchen of a well-to-do house, the girl is happy and helpful and expects no more of life than to be allowed to cook the Christmas Carp. Who can blame her for dreaming of a romantic moment when her mother arrives? And who can fault her when she sticks loyally to that woman as the charade grows thinner and thinner?
There is only one episode I wish were handled just a little differently. Trying not to give too much away, Annika's Vienna friends come to take her away from a school she's been sent to. During this rescue attempt, someone deliberately lets a large and heavy object fall down a flight of stairs onto the headmistress. In the ensuing chaos, everyone gets away. On the one hand, there's real heroism involved, as someone shows how they were prepared to put Annika's health and safety before an object, however beloved. On the other hand, though, the headmistress could very easily have been killed, and this without the rescuers really knowing how bad a situation Annika was in. We, the readers, know. They, the characters, don't. If something comparable but less potentially lethal had been done, with some sort of restitution later the episode could have worked just as well. This might appear to be nitpicking, but I don't see why the good characters should need to get away with murder. In summary, though, the book is uplifting in many areas, but without becoming cloying or too unrealistic.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.
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