A Countess Below Stairs -- Eva Ibbotson
I'm telling you, it doesn't get better than this:
A young Russian countess, as sweet as Sara Crewe and as fiery as... someone really fiery, is forced to flee her homeland due to the Russian Revolution. The family jewels* stolen by a trusted family servant, Anna and what's left of her family arrive in England, safe but penniless.
She takes a job as a servant in the Westerholme household. Anna keeps her identity a secret, but it is immediately and unarguably clear to the other servants and to the Westerholme family that Anna is A Lady. They keep her on anyway because she's such a hard worker and because it isn't long before everyone loves her and can't imagine life without her.
Everyone including Rupert**, the young Earl. But romance is out of the question, because Rupert is engaged to a particularly beautiful -- and particularly awful -- woman. Rufus, being a Man of Honor, wouldn't consider jilting her, and she's not about to give up her chance at becoming a Countess, regardless of a piddling thing like True Love...
I still can't believe that I've done a complete and utter one-eighty on the romance genre. The entire time I was reading this book (I had to put it down halfway through and Go To Work, bah!), I swanned around telling everyone about it, whether they wanted to hear about it or not:
"Oh, you're checking out a James Bond movie? You know who should really play James Bond? Rufus Sewell. And you know who else Rufus Sewell should play? The Earl in the book I'm reading. Or maybe Prince Sergei. See, it's about this Russian Countess..."
I AM NOT EXAGGERATING. Everybody who visited my library on Saturday heard about the swoonfest that is A Countess Below Stairs. Everybody. Little old men, six-year-olds, EVERYBODY.
It wasn't just the romance or the storyline, of course -- it's an Eva Ibbotson book, so we get bits like this: "The dowager was a small, vague woman in her fifties with silver hair, wide gray eyes and a penchant for the kind of tea gowns and flowing chiffon scarves which so often seem to go with a belief in spiritualism." And as with all other Eva Ibbotson books I've read, I immediately and easily fell in love with the characters I was supposed to love and loathed the characters I was supposed to loathe -- Muriel, Rupert's fiancee, in particular, was an easy one to hate. Not only is she In The Way of Rupert and Anna's True Love, she is a passionate believer in eugenics, has a complete lack of empathy and is a huge bigot. She's THE WORST.
All summer long, I hope to see people at the beach with this one. It's that kind of book. It's not just fluff -- it's GOOD fluff.
*Yes, actual jewels, you sicko. Don't even try to tell me that you didn't think it.
**Totally pictured him as Rufus Sewell. Actually, I also pictured her cousin Sergei as Rufus Sewell. Tell you what -- I'd be okay with him playing both parts.