Sunday, 22 August 2010

Book Review: A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson- Stephenie Meyer's favourite

A Company of Swans: listed among Stephenie Meyer's favourite books

Blurb summary:
For Harriet Morton, ballet is the only escape from her dreary home and strict family. Then a Russian ballet master comes searching for dancers....
Defying her father, Harriet runs away to join the ballet on a journey to the Amazon. In a grand opera house, deep in the heart of the wild jungle, she performs Swan Lake- and falls in love with a mysterious British exile. But Harriet's father has tracked her down... and her new life is under threat.

My summary:

In 1912, nineteen year old Harriet Morton is living with her father, a narrow minded and crotchety Professor at the University and her money-tight and strict Aunt Louisa in a dreary and oppressive household. Her one joy and escape from her controlled life at home is her ballet lessons, which her Aunt Louisa thinks are a waste of money. Then, when a Russian ballet master comes to watch Harriet's ballet class, she is singled out to be invited to become part of a ballet company performing in the Amazon. Harriet knows it is her one chance of getting away from the tedious life that her Aunt and the Tea Ladies have planned for her but knows her father would never approve. She loses hope of ever joining the company until she meets a bespectacled boy called Henry at an outing with the Tea Ladies to a dilapidated Yorkshire mansion. He begs her to find a mysterious man he calls The Boy who he is certain is in the Amazon and belives can save the neglected house. Unable to refuse this affectionate and earnest boy, Harriet takes the chance to follow her dreams and pursue her happiness.

My thoughts:

I have read a few of Eva Ibbotson's adult books (that are now marketed at teenagers) before and A Company of Swans created a just as or even more enthralling world  than her other books.
One of my first thoughts when I finished the book was 'what an intricately designed and very real world I was just left.' Through the meticulous description of the relationships between the large cast of characters, the flora and fauna of the Amazon jungle, the art of ballet and detailed plot, Ibbotson's writing created a world of a particular group of people and their connections that I fully believed was possible to have  existed.


In this novel, there was an interesting array of characters from varying backgrounds and distinct personalities. What made the characterisation so strong for me was the secondary/supporting characters, which I find can often make or break the book and be the difference between a flat book and words that come alive.  We meet the do-gooders, the eccentric tea ladies who make Harriet's life a misery, endearing but odd little Henry who wants to be an explorer in the Amazon, the French beauty Marianne who befriends Harriet, Simonova, the prima ballerina of the company, Harriet's cowardly and awkward suitor who studies insects and many more.

The protagonist Harriet-  Harriet is a determined and emotional character, but can appear to be a bit wishy washy. She is very kind, graceful and loyal and also clever. In appearance, is described as looking plain and a bit serious but 'grave looking eyes'  with brown hair. However, her 'plainness' actually becomes her charm. When it comes to dancing, Harriet is always very passionate and extremely hard working to catch up for her lack of experience and prestigious training. She also loves the wild Amazon and learning about the names of the hundreds upon thousands of species of animals and plants. I found Harriet likable, especially when she came out of her shell but I felt that she was a bit too unflawed: she always did the right thing, said the right thing and nearly everyone liked her.

The male lead Rom- Rom is a rich and dashing rubber plantation owner who I won't reveal too much about because I don't want to spoil the story. I thought that his relationship with Harriet was lovely, especially the need to protect her  and his treasured feelings for her were very well conveyed and showed that he always thought of what was best for her.

Setting and themes

I loved the idea of using the Amazon for the setting, it was the perfect place and I've never come across a book set there before and I'm not sure if there are any other books set in the mainly unexplored Amazons in the 1900s. It made the book more unique and was fantastic for plot opportunities and descriptions, fitting in with the whole book perfectly.

Quite a lot of the book was set in the theatre where Harriet and the Dubrov ballet company performed and the way ballet was woven straight through the plot and not just as a theme was lovely . The descriptions of the ballet performances were magical and at some points, I found them more compelling than the romance itself.

The setting and themes made sure that there was something for everyone to particularly enjoy whether a ballet lover, someone with a keen sense of adventure and exploration or a romance fan.


As I mentioned previously, the plot of this novel was very intricate and followed the lives and relationships of a lot of characters but still kept the romance central. I found that the plot was very well paced, which gave time for you to absorb the unfamiliarity of Harriet's world. Ibbotson thought out this book very well and there were many small details at the beginning of the book that fell into place at the end. Her planning and skill also shows in the fact that something that could have turned into a complicated tangle fell into place effortlessly. The only pitfall of the plot was that some of the times Harriet and Rom were able to spend time together were slightly too coincidental but the beauty  and cleverness  of the storyline far outweighed that.

Verdict: This refreshingly enchanting story and light hearted romance set in the Amazon that verged on the fairy tale like was such a beautiful book with wonderful descriptions and the added magic of a ballet theme. 

More: A Company of Swans was published in 1985 but went out of print for many years, the newest edition being printed in 2008. I was very surprised that a book as enjoyable and wonderful as this went out of print, however I have noticed that this often happens with undiscovered but brilliant books.

Here are the old covers for it:

I think that the right hand cover portrayed the ballet side to the story really well but I don't think that itwould appeal to such a wide audience as the modern re print and it makes it look as though the story is just about a ballerina.

What I like about the new cover is that it somehow manages to combine all the elements of the storyline on one cover. Harriet's personality is captured just right in the expression on the face of the model and the way her hair is pulled back from her face and up hints that she is a ballerina (along with the title of the book.) The swirls and other decoration symbolise the vibrant colours and beauty of the Amazon as well as the magic of the book and I find the butterflies to symbolise Harriet growing up into a young woman.
It's one of my favourite covers on my bookshelf, along with the other similar designs of Ibbotson's other books.


  1. Great, detailed review! I had one book by this author but I can't seem to remember the name of it now. This one sounds great, I'll definitely pick it up if I stumble across it in the future! :)

  2. I'm glad that my review has introduced it to you :)
    The book you've read before by her might have been The Secret Countess, Magic Flutes, The Morning Gift, The Star of Kazan, Jounrey to the River Sea, The Dragonfly Pool...

    If you do find and read it, let me know what you think!

  3. This book looks really good. Thanks for the great review.

  4. I own a few Ibbotson books but haven't read any of them yet. Every time I read a review of one of them I think I must read one, but then it just doesn't happen.

  5. I have the same problem with other authors too but I hope you get round to reading Ibbotson because I think (remembering comments on other posts and blogs from you) that you will love her books. You wouldn't want to miss out on them!

  6. I really enjoyed her books a couple of years, when I went through a whole bunch at once.
    I still recall "The countess beneath the stairs"; the books are so detailed, and really an immersive experience.
    Glad you like them too!

  7. I absolutely LOVE Eva Ibbotson's books that I've read so far and I have a copy of this one that I'm yet to read.
    Great review :)


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