So, I read The Morning Gift this weekend. I’ve spent some weeks reading this book now (mostly in early mornings, when just taking up your most recent book is a great way to postpone the moment before you have to get up) and it has been both cosy and enjoyable, for the most part. But now that I’ve finished the book I feel a bit underwhelmed – I think it is mostly because of some tropes. But let me summarize the story first:
The plot is set in Vienna and London in the 1930’s. Ruth Berger leads a happy life in Vienna with her parents and relatives in a highly educated milieu. She lives in a rich world of books, the study of anthropology, music and is deeply in love with young pianist Heini who seems destined for a great career. Until the dreaded Anschluss. Both Ruth and her family are forced to leave Vienna, but some plans go wrong, and Ruth is accidentally left behind when her parents leave for London. Thanks to a family friend, Quin Somerville, a marriage of convenience is arranged between him and Ruth, so that Ruth can leave for London, where the marriage is to be annulled once she is safe. In London we get to know the visitors and owners of a refugee café where the german refugees along with Ruth’s parents stay. When Quin and Ruth arrive in London, a lawyer is contacted to annull the marriage as agreed, Quin goes back to his job as a college professor and Ruth waits for her beloved Heini to arrive from Budapest. In the mean time she starts to work at the café, but it is not until she gets a place at the very college Quin is teaching that things start to get complicated…
I rooted for Quin and Ruth, and really fell for Ruth’s charming and warm character. I also loved her interest in zoology, the scenes in The Natural Museum in Vienna, and all the characters at the refugee café in Belsize park. Very often I felt it was a comforting and kind read, a book I enjoyed to return too.
What bothered me occasionally, is the characterization of Ruth, she came across as almost needlessly infantalized sometimes. In the book she is supposed to be 20 years old, her character is spontaneous, lively, happy and a bit hotheaded in a childlike way. I know this can have several reasons; I’m aware of the fact that, if we’re talking about realism, a 20-year-old in the 1930’s was most possibly a lot more naïve than the 20-year-olds of today, so that Ruth’s childlike nature, that she comes across as younger than her years can have som historical correctness. But I suspect it could also have something to do with certain gendered stereotypes when it comes to the portraying of young women in romantic stories. So I have some mixed feelings about it, because I still loved Ruth as a character, the way she behaves and the joy she gives to other people, the sheer life-affirmation she communicates. I see how the childlike mannerisms are there for humour or as something to add to her charm, like when she plans to climb the Kanderspitze and swim the Varne to get to France. I should also add, that this doesn’t go uncommented in the book; Quin for example, lectures her for behaving like a ten-year-old, her friends point out that she behaves like a heroine from a Victorian novel, etc.
I also caught a passage where Quin watches her neck and discovers “those vulnerable hollows that prevent parents from murdering their young children.” I realize that this passage is here for both humour and charm, but the fact that this is a 20-year-old described like this, bringing the spectator’s, reader’s thoughts to a child, as described, just doesn’t really agree with me (that I’m myself close to her age might also have something to do with it). So, to sum it up, I realize how many of these charactheristics are part of what makes Ruth Ruth, and that all of them are presented in the book as humorous and/or charming elements. I just don’t like the bigger picture it creates, a picture that is far from unfamiliar; usually I’m particularly watchful when it comes to infantalizing or childlike characterizations of young women past the age of 18, because it is not an uncommon thing culturally (in literature and media), and to me it is a tiresome trope, furthering an excuse to not see women as potent adults.
I don’t want to judge too harshly though, there are several wonderful characters here, and Ruth is among them, but I just felt I needed to point out this particular aspect.
But apart from this, there were other things I liked, like how frigidity as a condition was dismissed, or how Ruth promises herself not to make a competition out of studying, her euphoria and sheer joy when hearing lectures and learning new things.
So, despite my irriation with some tropes (and here I don’t know if I’m only judging this particular work too hard, there are, after all, plenty of books out there having similar tropes, or infantalizing young female characters, and doing it worse), I still appreciated it as a kind and light read, and I’m curious to check out more books by Eva Ibbotson.
P.S When I went to the library today and looked for Ibbotson-books I spotted Hilary McKay’s name and loaned Forever Rose, I just had to after reading some pages. This was an impulse-loan (I realized it is the fifth book in the series), but I really look forward to read all the books about the Casson Family now!