The old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a familiar one, often repeated. The truth of the matter is that we all do it anyway. We look at the cover art, pass judgment on the title, read the flap or the back cover and maybe a few pages, and then either check the book out or consign it to our literary scrap heap. This was the procedure that I followed when I picked up Eva Ibbotson’s young adult novel A Company of Swans. I looked at the ballerina on the front, read the back cover, and decided that it was little more than a few hours of light entertainment, a piece of fluff, nothing more. Fortunately, I happened to be desperate for something, anything to read, and so I picked it up anyway.
It is not often that the assumptions I make based on a book’s cover are so thoroughly broken. I was, to say the least, surprised. The story is that of a young woman, Harriet Morton, who lives a restricted and largely joyless existence as the daughter of a classic’s professor in Cambridge. Harriet’s only escape is her lessons in ballet, at least until she receives an offer to join a ballet company going to perform in Manaus, in Brazil. The tale of Harriet’s foray into the world of professional dance is neatly interwoven with the story of a young man, Rom Verney, the younger son of a local aristocrat, who fled to the Amazon to make his fortune. The plot is rife with adventure and humor, mistaken identity, treachery and romance. In short, all the elements necessary for a delightful and satisfying tale.
Where the book really shines, however, is its prose. Reminiscent of the works of Francis Hodgson Burnett and J.M. Barrie, it glows with charm and whimsy. Ibbotson’s evocation of her chosen period, the early twentieth century, is deft and reminiscent without being nostalgic. The characterization, not merely of Harriet and Rom but also of the secondary characters, is wry and larger than life, bringing the reader loveable heroes and deliciously loathsome villains. Laced with good humor and warmth, Ibbotson’s work is satisfying on many levels, a great read that one can return to again and again.