What a fascinating book, with a beautiful cover to boot—a nice departure from that paper cutout cartoon design that everyone has deemed the style du jour.
Mimi Matthews is also a nonfiction author and a Victorian era historian, both of which come across very strongly in this novel. The main characters are a half-Indian tailor and a blue stocking equestrian, and for once the ethnic backgrounds and occupations don’t seem superfluous to the main plot. Evelyn is looking to make a match on the marriage market, as most of these Victorian heroines are, and needs to do so to keep her family afloat. But in this instance, she also has a horse who she loves who is expensive to stable (additionally, she wants to have him be a stud horse but cannot do so as an unmarried woman—the shock! The scandal!). Ahmed, on the other hand, is a tailor with prodigious skills looking to make his mark in a semi-racist very classist society. He’s gained some notoriety designing riding habits for a well known group of proudly out courtesans who parade around the riding grounds, and Evelyn decides that she needs him to make her the same to catch the eye of eligible bachelors.
Honestly, I think the romance in this story is of secondary importance to the social dynamics that Evelyn, her new band of fellow horse girls, and Ahmed faces. As I noted, it’s really clear that Matthews is a historian as well (she calls her novels “proper Victorian romances”) because she doesn’t shy away from what it means to be a tailor in the era (work on credit, hope your patroness pays), what maintaining a reputation entails, and—most interestingly—what it actually means for Evelyn to fall in love with someone half-Indian. She acknowledges her weak spots and does the work to educate herself on his experiences, so that he doesn’t have to do additional emotional labor (that’s right, men can do emotional labor as well!) of both experiencing racism and explaining it to a semi-privileged white girl. More to the point, Evelyn continues to maintain agency in a way that’s rather realistic in this time period, without as much anachronism as you’re used to getting in HRs.
This here is probably a three star book that I have bumped up to four stars because I am a sucker for any sort of Beauty and the Beast adaptation, and because for all my reading I was still surprised by a plot twist! This is not a thing that happens often. My three star review, as well, is less to do with objective measures of quality but to do with characterization/timeline choice. To get it out of the way—similar to Olivia Dade and her Spoiler Alert universe, the events of his book intersect with those of the prior entry above. But whereas that book had a lovely quadrant of female friendship at the center, here plot choices contrive to spirit away Julia Wynchwood (through her own machinations, to be fair) from the rest of her friends. As a result you’re left with one of my least favorite tropes, i.e. the romance that happens away from the oversight of your friends. It always makes me quite suspicious! What female woman in any era who has confidants would willingly give them up when embarking on a new adventure? I always get suspicious it’s because the author doesn’t know how to write realistic female friendships and finds it easier to discard them.
In ANY case, I don’t think that’s entirely what’s happening here, and so I’m less fussed about the upgrade. I think the horse girl-ness was also a bit lacking in this book, which perhaps is a conscious choice to avoid having it be too much of a gimmick…but to that I say, give me all the horse girl ness, there is a severe lack of them in my life.
Once you look past the contrived isolation (although nothing bad happens to her, and it’s quite clear that it’s an isolation of her own choosing) and distinct lack of horses (and hounds, Hugh Grant would be throughly shocked in a very charming British way), you’re left with another well written, well-researched novel that explores real challenges in British society in the Victorian era. In this case, we touch on the Crimean War and the paucity of support provided to its survivors—Jasper clearly has PTSD that he’s single handedly wrestled into submission without properly addressing the root causes. It’s no one’s responsibility but his own to do so, which is refreshing to read about. The children race in and out of the plot as convenient, serving the roles of “adorable ragamuffin” and helping move forward the plot. Questions of inheritance are dealt with sensibly, giving you the sense that you’re in good hands. I saw recently that the last (fourth?) novel in this series was just optioned, so congrats to Matthews and I look forward to reading more of her work.