I am now a new fan of historical romance thanks to The Reluctant Heiress by Iva Ibbotson. I never thought I'd like historical romance, and when I picked up this novel I wasn't even sure if it fit the category. I had a biased idea that historical romance was something with an exceedingly high amount of historical details surrounding a sordid love affair. I was thinking "Gone with the Wind" or some other grand, romantic epic. But, after googling, well, I've learned this is a sub-genre mixture of romance and historical fiction, and it includes any romance with a real historical setting taking place before WWII. Yes, some of it will have swashbuckling pirates (think I'll stay away from those), but if Ibbotson is an example of some of the better historical romance out there, then I'm in.
As for the historical setting in The Reluctant Heiress, it is the same as Iva Ibbotson's childhood home--Vienna, Austria. However, the time period is the early 1920's, a couple years before Ibottson's birth of 1925. I love how the narrative describes Vienna as a "dismembered empire: a city impovershed by defeat, in the grip of inflation, but still beautiful" where the people celebrated art even through the desolation left by the Great War. I am a social studies teacher, so this type of writing really appeals to me. And, it is in this landscape where a fated love develops between an unlikely match--the diminutive, delicately framed Austrian princess, Theresa-Maria of Pfaffenstein and the dark haired, debonairre Guy Farne of orphaned origin.
But, Guy is a self-made man who graduated at the top of his class and who made millions with his own investment company. He is rich, powerful, and in love with a beautiful, yet vain woman who comes from old, aristocratic money and whose family once rejected Guy as a proper suitor due to his low born status. As for the princess, she is the last in a long line of Pfaffenstein royalty. But WWI left the Austrian aristocracy on shaky ground, and the princess has been forced to sell her castle. But, Tessa has never been the typical princess of excess and indulgence. She calls herself a republican and believes in art as the great equalizer of mankind. And, she is employed for free by a Viennese opera company as a wardrobe mistress.
Well, as you would guess, Guy is buying the castle as a gift for his arrogant fiancee and commissioning the Viennese opera company to perform a special peformance of the opera, "Magic Flutes." Little does he know that the young girl with the shorn hair and love of music he found weeping below a theater corridor is the owner of the castle. At Tessa's arrival to the castle, Guy immediately feels decieved and breaks Tessa's heart with his cold manner. Well, I won't tell you the rest, but the most romantic part of the novel is also the most heartbreaking scene where you will find some very memorable lines...kind of like the famous "you had me at hello" from the movie "Jerry Maguire." Here it's "You can be my star sister. You can at least be that." You'll just have to read it to get the full impact.
Above all, The Reluctant Heiress is beautifully written and suitable for all ages without one sordid detail or excessive fit of passion. About the only thing I would've loved more would have been one final, strong romance scene. But, beyond this, the novel is excellent and that one gut wrenching scene is great for any romantic at heart.