Secrets and Sapphires

Secrets and Sapphires (also known as Cinders and Sapphires in America) was written by Leila Rasheed and first published in 2013. It is a historical romance set in 1912 that focuses on the lives of the people who live on a wealthy English estate. The novel forms the first part of the At Somerton series and is followed by Diamonds and Deceit (2014) and Emeralds and Ashes (2015).

For the first time in years, Lord Westlake and his family have returned from India to their ancestral home of Somerton. However, he has brought with him a surprise. The Lord is to be wed to the affluent Fiona Templeton, and Lord Westlake’s two daughters – Ada and Georgiana – now must grow accustomed to sharing their father with Fiona’s three children.

Life on the estate seems simple and glamorous for the young ladies who live there however, as Ada prepares for her coming out, she increasingly realises that life is more complex than she first imagined. She has two ambitions in life – to study at Oxford University and to marry her true love, Ravi, yet neither can be. As the heir to Somerton she is expected to marry someone wealthy and maintain the family name. Ravi is a penniless Indian scholar and her reputation would be ruined if anyone found out.

However, Ada is not the only person with a secret. Beneath the glamour and civility of Somerton, almost everyone is hiding something. Ambition, forbidden love and dangerous secrets are rampant and, if they were to be discovered, would spell destruction a dozen times over for the name of Westlake. However, there are always those who are desperate to profit from a good scandal…

Although I’m generally willing to give any genre of literature a try, I must admit that Edwardian Britain is not a period of history that really appeals to me. However, I was willing to give Secrets and Sapphires the benefit of the doubt and tried my best to approach it with an open mind. Unfortunately, it still just did not work for me so please take my review with a pinch of salt. Perhaps if you’re a big fan of the likes of Downton Abbey it will hold more of an appeal. Personally, I found it a bit of a slog to get through as my issues far outnumbered the positives.

The biggest issue that I had with Secrets and Sapphires was its complete lack of on ongoing plot. Naturally, this is quite a big problem to get around. The book was structured more like a soap opera as it flitted between the many people who lived and worked on the Somerton Estate. These people came from a number of different social strata, ranging from Lord Westlake himself down to the girls who worked in the kitchens. It roughly follows the time between Lord Westlake’s return from India and Lady Ada’s coming out, however there’s no real sense of the passage of time so I could not really tell you if this was a period of weeks or months.

Beyond the setting of Somerton and the general hierarchy of a wealthy household, I did feel that Rasheed underused the time period somewhat. The novel touches upon some of the pressing political and ethical issues of the time but never really discusses what these mean beyond Lord Westlake’s concerns regarding “political unrest”. As these themes include such complex and interesting topics as the British occupation of India, the suffrage movement and the taboo of homosexuality, they really could have added some depth and flavour to the story. Unfortunately, Secrets and Sapphires was purely about the scandal.

Scandal is a word that is roughly uttered 19,000 times within this novel. Every single character, no matter how small, had some kind of secret in the story that would spell disaster for them if it was revealed to the general public. Naturally, almost all of these hinge on some kind of “inappropriate” relationship. While the main one of these is Ada and Ravi’s forbidden love, there are also many others such as a gay man being blackmailed by his former valet and a Lord’s attempts to hide his illegitimate daughter.

My problem with these is twofold. First was the fact that my modern brain could not comprehend some of these things as actually being scandals. The maid who is desperately trying to hide the fact that she’s a talented pianist was one that was especially baffling. But more problematic was that there is just such a thing as too much scandal. With so many characters and such a low page count, the novel quickly became tiring to read. By the time I was halfway through, I already felt scandalled out.

As you may expect, the novel also doesn’t really have an ending. Very few of the scandals felt as though they had come to their natural conclusion within this book, leaving many threads hanging to be continued in Diamonds and Deceit. In this way, it felt a more like the first episode of a television series than an actual novel in its own right. I know this is a personal gripe of mine, but I’m sure that you’re probably aware by now that I do get frustrated with stories that just break off without any kind of resolution.

The characters were also problematic. While a couple of them are at least likeable, particularly Ada, Rose and Georgiana, there wasn’t a lot to any of them beyond their scandal. None of the characters really had any kind of quirks that made them distinct. For example, we’re told that Georgiana is a tomboy but the most roguish thing she does in the novel is hit a cricket ball through a window. Even the characters that are described as being wastrels or lady’s men did not really do much to show this on page. I think the problem here again is the fact that the cast is far too big. There just wasn’t enough space to develop everyone and so there was a lot of exposition.

The other thing that the novel had in droves was insta-love. Due to the lack of development, characters had a bit of a habit of falling in love at first sight. Naturally, this love was always portrayed as being forever love. Ada is especially guilty of this as she spent the entire novel mooning after Ravi. Even when he tried to end their relationship and leave, Ada still refused to consider seeing other men because her love for him was too pure. Trouble was, the two of them only actually shared five scenes together in the entire book.

Anyhow, I think I’ve said enough. Perhaps if Edwardian literature is your thing you might get more of a kick out of Secrets and Sapphires, but it just was not for me. The book had little plot and very shallow characters, relying on constant scandals to keep the reader’s interest. I will probably review the sequel at some point, primarily because I already own a copy, but I am certainly in no hurry to.

Secrets and Sapphires can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Diamonds and Deceit | Arkham Reviews

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