The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson
This is a little, old-fashioned, enameled music-box of a book, and if it were a music-box, its tune would be a Strauss waltz.
The setting is Vienna in the last golden years before the first World War. Annika is a kind-hearted foundling girl brought up by the cook in a household of professors; her life changes the day her “real” mother shows up and whisks her away to life in the aristocracy. Reuniting with her mother should be the fairytale that Annika has daydreamed about for years, but life on the curiously rundown estate isn’t quite what she envisioned. For one thing, she has to eat turnip jam. Also, her new family’s motto is “Stand Aside Ye Vermin Who Oppose Us.”
Ibbotson, I was surprised to learn, is a living writer who nonetheless captures the feel of a bygone era’s childhood classics: Frances Hodgson Burnett and Marguerite Henry, to name a few. In The Star of Kazan, there are: a foundling raised by elderly caretakers, jewels, a contested inheritance, a secret garden, a gypsy boy, a dreadful boarding school, and horses. Not just any horses, either, but the Lipizzaner stallions of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. I cannot think of anything else this book needed to be the platonic ideal of the classic girl’s story. Maybe a governess? I was charmed.
Ibbotson is deft at summing up a person’s character in a few, telling lines, and while her picture of old-world Vienna is sentimental, she is not above ridding the story of a villainess by dropping a concert harp on her. (The moral of this episode? It is wrong to drop harps on people, as harps are expensive.) I particularly recommend the audiobook, read with delightful nuance by Patricia Conolly, who won an Audie award for it.
Check the WRL catalog for Star of Kazan