The Reluctant Heiress

The Reluctant Heiress main

The Reluctant Heiress
Eva Ibbotson1.5 Stars

Spoiler Rating: Low

Dear Lizzy,

I experienced an interesting combination of enjoyment, boredom, and fury while reading The Reluctant Heiress. Let me tell you about it.


Being an heiress in 1920s Austria with nothing but a broken-down castle to your name and nary a penny in your purse could be frustrating for anyone but the Princess Theresa-Maria of Pfaffenstein. Tessa, however, is thrilled with her situation, as it allows her to concentrate on her love of the arts–and no one in the Viennese opera company need know that their delightful and charming under-wardrobe mistress is really a princess. But when the dashing self-made millionaire Guy Farne arrives at the opera in search of suitable entertainment for his high society guests, Tessa realizes that there may be more to life–and love–than just music. And while the attraction between them is undeniable, Guy’s insufferable snob of a fiancée only solidifies Tessa’s determination to keep her true identity a secret. Yet, after a chance meeting with the handsome Englishman, Tessa’s reserve begins to melt, and she starts to wonder if it’s not too late for a fairy-tale ending.


  • Tessa is cheerful, passionate, and selfless.
  • Guy is kind, responsible, and powerful without being pretentious.
  • Guy’s foster mother, Martha, is a hardworking angel.
  • Tessa and Guy’s romance, with all its angst.
  • 1920s Vienna.
  • Some of the humor.
  • Some bits and pieces of the writing style.
  • One particularly powerful scene.

Here’s one bit in particular I love. Very early in the story, Guy has arrived at Tessa’s castle with an eye to buy it. Tessa’s not there (she lives in Vienna), so her two elderly great-aunts give Guy a tour, sharing both the castle’s history and their grand-niece’s (whom they call Putzerl).

What’s not to love in that?

The romance between Tessa and Guy is decent, if a little hasty and a little clumsy. The big turning points in their relationship, though (when he discovers she’s Princess Putzerl, for example) are great scenes. I found myself skimming a lot of the boring stuff to get back to the romance parts, because I was genuinely interested in their seemingly doomed relationship.


  • Tessa is absolutely perfect in every way, and everyone loves her because of course.
  • Guy’s gold-digger fiancée lacks even a single redeeming quality.
  • The writing style gets awkward.
  • An apparent pro-English, pro-Viennese, anti-everyone-else tone.
  • An apparent distaste for any woman not rail thin.
  • Pretty much everyone is a ridiculous caricature of a real person.
  • Prolonged boring bits about a failing opera.

What brings this book down to one and a half stars is how boring and infuriating it was.

Boring because Tessa’s trying to help a failing opera company, and it’s failing despite her help, and good god I don’t care.

Infuriating because to be thin and white is the female ideal, and any woman who isn’t thin is cruelly mocked by the narrator for her weight.

Notice that these women excel at losing their reason, they heave rather than catch their breath, they are comically clumsy and emotionally damaged. I can assure you that Tessa (who’s repeatedly described as “waiflike,” “little,” and “fragile”) is not described in such insulting terms when she’s upset, or out of breath, of clumsy.

And those are just a few of the examples I noticed within the first 44 pages of the book. The first 44 pages! No, it doesn’t get better from there.

There’s also the racism.

Now, were 1920s England and Vienna racist places? Yes. Would it have been historically accurate to present these societies in any other way? No. Am I bothered that the characters make racist remarks? Not exactly; I appreciate historical accuracy even if I don’t appreciate racism.

What bothers me is that the narrator participates. The narrator’s descriptions of the various ethnic groups are supposed to be charming and funny (I think), but as far as I could tell, every ethnic group except the English (and the people of Vienna) is snickered at. The Romanian-women-are-crazy excerpt above is one example of (approximately) hundreds. Here’s another:

It’s not a violent racism, an I-hate-everything-you-are racism, but it’s dismissing entire cultures as ridiculous stereotypes for the sake of humor–and I for one didn’t find it particularly funny.


Obviously, I don’t really recommend this book. The romance is nice enough, but the pros definitely don’t outweigh the cons.



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