At Somerton: Secrets and Sapphires by Leila Rasheed
It’s Downton Abbey – but less miserable!
It’s the early 1900’s, and Lady Ada Averley is returning with her family from India, where her father has worked for the British Empire. They’re returning because her father believes it’s time for Ada to ‘come out’ in society and make a good impression to land herself a suitable husband, as was the norm for the time period and class. However, Ada is distracted by the love she feels for an Indian student travelling to Oxford with his tutor. When they get to England though and to the family seat of Somerton Court, Ada and her sister Georgiana discover their father is remarrying, hints and rumours abound about the real reason for their father’s dismissal from India, and another potentially disastrous family scandal threatens to rock the Averley family and their position in polite society forever.
You want love triangles? This has more than triangles, this books has love pentagons. I marvel at how on Earth Rasheed managed to write this without getting her head tied in knots, I know I’d have got confused trying to map the tangles out. Remarkably though, the various relationships are very easy to keep a track of as the reader, and include some really nice takes on the various dynamics too. My especial favourites were the troubled relationship between Sebastian (Ada’s new step brother) and his servant Oliver and the equally convoluted one blossoming between Ravi and Ada.
It’s not often you come across homosexual romance in fiction (in my experience anyway) and I love how this has just so neatly been slotted in. It’s an interesting one to put in and you really get drawn in with Sebastian as he struggles to hide the truth and keep his position in society while still having the relationship he wants. I especially love the way it’s been written too; I read a fair amount of fanfiction (please don’t judge me!) as well as regular fiction and the way homosexual relationships are treated in that is, more often than not…. stereotypical. Seriously, some writers need to step away from the cartoons because no one acts the way these writers will portray two people in a relationship, let alone a homosexual couple. Rasheed’s writing though is brilliant – no ‘what the…?’ moments here, the scenes between Sebastian and Oliver read like a couple, not like a mushy cut out. I’ve got to give her a couple of thumbs up for that reason alone, the rest of the story is just gravy. It’s so nice to read a homosexual relationship properly written for a change, rather than as a chance to try out as many demeaning endearments as possible.
The relationship between Ravi and Ada is equally interesting because, like the one between Oliver and Sebastian, it was highly unusual for its time. This is the time of Empire remember, when Britain still played a massive (if not solitary) role in India’s politics but the population back in Britain was still largely ignorant of the country and its culture. For someone to be in love with an Indian would have been hugely controversial and I love the constant wrangling Ada has with herself to love Ravi or to fit in for her father’s sake and reputation with the rest of polite society and not go against what is expected of her.
She’s a pretty interesting heroine, is Ada. As well as daring to be in love with an Indian, she also has an eye on going to University, which was almost unheard of for women then. Even if they did go to Uni, they couldn’t actually get a degree, just study. She’s also quietly behind the suffragette movement but although she’s a bit of a feminist, she still thinks of her family and her father’s reputation. Her hands are tied by it, but she thinks of family first and her own desires second. She’s very easy to like as a character; smart and savvy, able to argue her point and understand someone else’s, but equally able to concede ground for the sake of others. I really like her and I can’t wait to read more about her.
It’s a very political book too. Whilst Ada is preoccupied with getting her chance at Oxford and independence, the issue of Empire comes into play over and over again. Unlike History though (which I freely admit as a former History student can be really boring sometimes), this is just enough politics to be interesting, not enough to get bogged down and dull. I really liked the two viewpoints of the British presence in India, since this isn’t a period of History I’d ever really had an interest in before. Ada’s view of a benevolent Britain in Indian government versus Ravi’s view of an exclusive government really brought the period alive and I find myself wanting to know more about Empire history than I ever thought I’d want to know before. Like I said – just enough to pique interest, not enough to bore you if you’re not a History geek.
A historical read without getting too historical and if you love a good love triangle, you will adore this book. Really, really well recommended.
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