Here are two perfect gems, complex and satisfying, with characters so vibrant they nearly leap into your lap to join you as you read.
Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea (2001) starts us off in a London boarding school for girls in 1910. Newly-orphaned Maia (age unknown, but probably about 12 years old) must leave all she knows to live with her aunt and uncle in the Amazon jungle. Fortunately for Maia, she has a governess, Miss Minton, who helps her adjust to her new circumstances. These include the aunt and uncle who meet every requirement for despicableness: they’re cruel, dishonest, and they detest the glorious jungle and its teeming life that surround them, including the native Brazilians who must work on their rubber plantation. In a sort of funny-house mirror image of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, Maia helps connect someone to a lost inheritance and save another from unhappy banishment from the life he loves. Great fun, and Maia’s physical and metaphysical journeys into Amazonia are nearly exact matches of those taken by Ann Patchett’s protagonist in State of Wonder.
Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (1948) is a more challenging read, so all that much more satisfying. Cassandra Mortmain lives in a decrepit castle with her family as everyone but the father makes every effort to expand their financial horizons in 1930s England (the father is suffering writer’s block, so he’s barely functional). This includes finding a rich husband for Cassandra’s older sister, Rose, who wishes she lived in a Jane Austen novel. The story comes to us through Cassandra’s diary entries, where she writes down everything, from the selling of furniture for food money, to the disconcerting crush the local boy has on her. Smith’s novel is a mash-up of Pride and Prejudice and Brideshead Revisited, with a bit of P G Wodehouse thrown in for good measure. Wikipedia reports she wrote this while exiled in California during WWII (her husband was a conscientious objector), and you can almost taste the longing for England. Smith doesn’t exactly idealize it, but she certainly makes “genteel poverty” look a lot more fun than it probably was.
BTW, Smith’s the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Added January 2015: See Calmgrove’s excellent post about Ibbotson’s novel here.